Privatization of water districts being explored

Surveys regarding service satisfaction to be mailed out to rate payers next month

Carmen GeorgeDecember 20, 2012 

Partial privatization of the county's special water districts remains on the Madera County Privatization Committee's table for discussion -- a possible change discussed further Dec. 13 at the committee's most recent meeting in Madera.

A customer satisfaction survey is scheduled to go out next month, with questionnaires to be mailed to approximately 6,000 residents in their quarterly billings, along with online and phone surveys planned. Resident will have 30 days to respond.

"Depending on the outreach and response from the public survey, the (county privatization committee) will discuss whether the letter of interest (to solicit private employees) is needed," Vang said. "This letter of interest will only be needed if the committee decides to outsource all the operations and maintenance staff for the county's special districts."

The county currently has 24 special district employees, Vang said.

"If those positions are outsourced, they would still be working for us, the county, so all those districts would still be under the county's jurisdiction and responsibility," Vang said. "We'd still have to approve all their budgets ... and they'd still have the board of supervisors to answer to (instead of reporting directly to the California Public Utilities Commission to ask for rate increases)."

The privatization committee's next meeting will likely be held sometime in February or March, he said.

While partial outsourcing may still be on the table, the committee is no longer looking into selling all the county's water districts to a private company.

The committee will make a recommendation sometime next year to the Madera County Board of Supervisors, who will have the last say.

"I think the Dec. 13 (county privatization committee) meeting went very well," Vang said. "Not as many showed up as before, there was only about 20 people on the sign-up sheet and for our Nov. 7 meeting, we had close to 60. This meeting was really focused on the outreach that county needs to do to get input from the residents on our service and how satisfied they are with all their utilities, and that includes, for special districts -- other than roads -- primarily water and sewer service."

Area residents are also banding together to get better informed about the subject of possibly privatizing the special districts, forming the Community Utilities Council recently, with more information available at privatizingmaderacounty.com, by leaving a message at (888) 789-1634, or by emailing the council's researcher, North Fork resident Sarah Rah at rah.sarah72@gmail.com.

The council's website coordinator Marc Sobel addressed the privatization committee Dec. 15, stating the council believes there is a conflict of interest with three county staff members -- who each oversee the other in the chain of command -- serving on the committee.

The council said they plan to ask Max Rodriguez, the board of supervisors new chair come January, to reorganize the privatization committee by appointing more community members to serve on it. Of the seven committee members, two are members of the community who do not hold a political office or county staff position.

"This is a very important issue," said Sobel of why he hopes more community members get involved in the discussion about the fate of their special districts. "A special district is created for the benefit of the citizens in the community and is governed for their benefit by the county. All costs associated with the operation of a special district must be born by the citizens in that community. They get what they pay for, and that's the hardest part of all this ... There's no (county) welfare in this."

"We're pleased that the county has been receptive to our organization and we really look forward to working in a cooperative way with them and we are in close communication with county staff on these issues," Rah said. "We all anticipate a win-win outcome. The problem is there's jargon involved in all of this that the people don't understand. We are just trying to educate people on, 'What does this really mean?' And to make sure the county understands the rate payers, the people of these districts, are paying attention to what they are doing."

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