Privatization of water districts discussed

Supervisor Tom Wheeler addresses many issues at Nov. 15 Town Hall in Oakhurst

Carmen GeorgeNovember 21, 2012 

The possibility of selling the county's special water districts to a private company was eliminated from discussions by the Madera County Privatization Committee recently -- an announcement made to the relief of many at Supervisor Tom Wheeler's Town Hall meeting in Oakhurst Nov. 15.

Still, a recommendation for partial privatization remains on the table for discussion, with the possibility of outsourcing staff and collections of these county water districts.

Privatizing the water districts was met with strong resistance from residents -- who voiced concerns over the possibility of increased rates and bad water quality -- during the privatization committee's Nov. 7 meeting in Madera attended by about 70 people.

Another meeting will likely be held within the first two weeks of December and should be announced soon, said Kheng Vang, county engineer.

Of the county's 34 sewer and water districts, 18 are in Eastern Madera County, Vang said. And of the county's 140 special districts, 120 are in Supervisor Wheeler's district, he said.

Since his election, Wheeler put a stop to the creation of any more special districts in District 5 -- what he sees as often leaving residents paying high prices for utilities, without the buying power needed to make proper repairs.

Wheeler said if some of these smaller special districts want to band together to increase their buying power, he would support that action, and that possible privatization was only suggested as an option to consider if it could help with water quality or cost.

The privatization suggestion instead created a stir from dozens of residents, who called for more research and information, and questioned and critiqued a solicitation this spring from a private company to buy the county's water districts.

At the committee's Nov. 7 meeting, a motion was made by committee member Doug Papagni to "recommend to the Board of Supervisors to prepare a proposal with a business model to include operation & maintenance, managed competition, outsourcing and internal improvement program for all the districts" and to request that the Board of Supervisors "appropriate $40,000 from Special Districts Budget contingencies to retain a consultant to assist the county in the Letter of Interest and proposal process."

The motion passed 7-0 on Nov. 7 -- what caused some concern to be voiced at the Nov. 15 Town Hall meeting.

Decisions won't be made "behind closed doors," Wheeler assured.

"This is a long process and we're just as the beginning of it," Vang said.

"At the (Nov. 7) committee meeting, there was consensus from the public attending that the money ($40,000 for a consultant) was needed," said Oakhurst resident Marc Sobel after last week's Town Hall meeting. "I know the county already receives money to pay administrative duties but this is an additional burden on already budgeted funds ... No public tax payer money can be used to support the special districts. If you want the county to do a better job, then you must fund this effort."

Another meeting regarding the recent privatization proposals is being sponsored by the Bass Lake Homeowners Association and will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14 at the Pines Resort Lakeview Room, 54449 Road 432.

Not included in the upcoming meeting is the privately-owned Bass Lake Water Company or owner-owned wells and septic systems.

A grassroots community group is also forming to educate themselves on the issue of privatization, called the Community Utilities Coalition.

"The Community Utilities Coalition is building membership among all of the county's 34 special (water and sewer) districts to respond to the county's proposed privatization and/or outsourcing initiative," said North Fork resident Sarah Raj. "The coalition will give us a stronger voice to negotiate with county supervisors and staff on this important topic.

"We are offering a cooperative, educational approach -- not confrontational. We plan on conducting an informational workshop, probably in January, with speakers from non-profit organizations and agencies who are knowledgeable about the regulations and problems with special districts, and about the pros and cons of partial or full privatization."

For more information about the coalition, email Raj at rah.sarah72@gmail.com or call her at (559) 877-7272.

North Fork casino

Charles Banks-Altekruse, spokesman for the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, spoke at Wheeler's Town Hall meeting last week about the status of the tribe's proposed casino on Highway 99 north of Madera, near Avenue 17.

Banks-Altekruse said the tribe overcame another big hurdle two months ago with Gov. Jerry Brown granting the land application for them to build the casino, but that they are still waiting for more "i's to be dotted and t's to be crossed" and a final decision could come any day now.

Banks-Altekruse talked a little about the state gaming compact -- the rules and conditions for how a tribe deals with the state. The governor asked that the North Fork tribe sponsor two tribes, one being the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California, giving them 2.5% of slot payments for life -- estimated initially at around $4 million a year -- to keep that tribe from building a casino on environmentally sensitive areas of Humboldt Bay.

The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians would also receive between $3 million and $5 million a year, he said. Chukchansi is slated to receive 2.5% on net win from slot machines through 2020, and revenue sharing would top out at 3.5% if annual slot revenue exceeds more than $200 million.

"We want to make sure we are a help to them (Chukchansi), not a drain ... Chukchansi is in a bind because the governor told them if they file a lawsuit, all the money North Fork promised them will go away," he said.

Banks-Altekruse said he hopes the tribe will be able to break ground for the casino soon, what the tribe wants to use to generate money to help their 2,000 members, the mountain community and county, he said. The tribe never expects to "get rich" off a casino like Table Mountain, which only has about 50 members, he said.

"We hope the greed of a few small groups doesn't get in way or this may drag on for a couple more years," he said.

Sheriff news

Sheriff John Anderson spoke at the meeting, announcing the Madera County Sheriff's Office new "Elder Orphans" program that helps senior citizens who live alone. More information is available in the story on Page A2 of this week's Sierra Star.

Sheriff Anderson told residents that this year there have been about 500 burglaries county-wide -- down from the usual 600 to 700 a year.

"If you live in the mountains, buy a dog," he cautioned as the best preventative method from getting burglarized.

Boys & Girls Club

Rima Runtzel, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Oakhurst, along with its new director, Richard Pastoria, also spoke at the Nov. 15 meeting about the club.

Runtzel said more community volunteers and board members are being sought to help the club -- which has helped 6,000 young people, ages 6 to 18, since its opening. The Oakhurst club usually sees about 80 children a day, they said.

"It's a great service for our kids and it keeps a lot of kids off the streets," Wheeler said. "They get guidance there that they don't always get at home."

Save the vaquita

A group of Elaine Brown's Wasuma Elementary School students also spoke at Supervisor Wheeler's meeting last week, urging the crowd to help save the vaquita, a rare, endangered species of porpoise that lives in the northern part of the Gulf of California. Less than 300 are estimated to still exist in the world -- with many getting stuck in gill nets and dying. The idea to help save the vaquitas came from Brown's sixth-grade student, Taylor, who heard about the endangered vaquitas and wrote a letter to Supervisor Wheeler asking to help him save them.

"The vaquita should be saved and we should be the one to save them," said one student. "Help save the vaquita right now, thank you."

The students also sent letters about the vaquitas, and received responses, from President Barack Obama and The Buckingham Palace.

"It's pretty amazing what kids can do," Brown said. "They want to change the world for the good if they have the opportunity."

Solid waste service

Wheeler again touched on the county's switching from Madera Disposal to Red Rock Environmental Group, part of the Fresno-based Caglia Environmental, for solid waste services.

The county had paid Madera Disposal a $1 million a year for up to 15 years for recycling sorting at the North Fork transfer station that they determined was not occurring.

The new company will give 6% of money earned from sorting the recyclables to the county. After paying for operations costs, he said the remainder of the 6% could go to the hurting county general fund, although it usually goes to a solid waste fund. Where the money will go is still be decided, he said.

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