Apple Valley will seek to take water system by eminent domain (November 19, 2015)

APPLE VALLEY — Many who attended Tuesday night’s special meeting on whether or not to use eminent domain to try to take over Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company said the Town Council’s vote felt like a foregone conclusion.

Yet still they came in droves. Nearly 200 residents, Ranchos employees, business owners, former council members and political activists filled Council Chambers not unlike avid fans entering a sporting arena. Both supporters and opponents brought signs that were held high throughout the more than four-hour proceeding while others wore matching shirts in a display of solidarity.

In the end, after voting unanimously to adopt the final Environmental Impact Report, the Council also voted unanimously on two separate Resolutions of Necessity to take Ranchos’ water system by eminent domain. Mayor Larry Cusack abstained on all three votes because his Apple Valley Communications company does business with Ranchos.

The room erupted in applause on numerous occasions during two impassioned public comment periods that saw 38 individuals speak their piece.

Town spokeswoman Kathie Martin said another 27 comment cards in opposition to eminent domain action were turned in, but those who turned them in chose not to speak.

Between the two public comment periods, 28 speakers supported Ranchos while 10 backed the Council, according to Town Clerk LaVonda Pearson.

I think most everyone here tonight, Ranchos General Manager Tony Penna said, knows that regardless of how many people came to this proceeding or what is said, that it is not going to change this Town Council’s intention to move forward to attempt to take over Ranchos through eminent domain.

Rates were the primary concern brought up by speakers on both sides. Town officials maintained they have been considering acquisition of the water system due to years of exorbitant rate increases and surcharges to which Ranchos’ ratepayers have been subjected.

Since 2002, the average water bill for AVR customers has jumped by 68 percent, a statement released by the town read, and under a proposed decision from the California Public Utilities Commission, the typical household served by (Ranchos) will see its water bill go up another 28.7 percent — or more than $200 per year — based on normal water usage.

But Ranchos officials said that the town has misinterpreted the proposed new rates set by the CPUC.

Based on the sales projection the CPUC is using to set rates, Ranchos Finance Manager Eric Larsen told the Daily Press, which takes into consideration Governor Brown’s mandate, even with the rate increase the average bill will only go up about 2.6 percent. If (ratepayers) maintain a high level of usage, their bills will be higher than that.

Some who spoke expressed concern that the town would not be able to lower water rates after acquisition, and the town has previously said it has not confirmed whether rates would decrease. However, Assistant Town Manager Marc Puckett did say that in his opinion the town would not only be able to stabilize rates, but immediately lower them upon acquisition.

Puckett based his opinion on Ranchos’ 2014 financial report that included two line items — Taxes and Net income — totaling nearly $8.5 million that he said the town would have at its disposal because it does not pay taxes or operate for profit.

So immediately upon acquisition, Puckett said, there would be $8.5 million that would be available for debt service (to bonds used to pay acquisition costs), additional infrastructure or reduction in rates.

Others spoke to the way the water ownership issue has not only pitted residents against the Town Council, but divided neighbors and friends as well — a point not disputed by Mayor Pro Tem Barb Stanton, who presided over the meeting in Cusack’s absence.

We are a divided community, yes, Stanton said near the end of the meeting. That is the lifeblood of this wonderful country — to be able to express ourselves. To say on either side of the line. It’s OK. But decisions have to be made … I believe this is the greatest good for our community (and) for the public.

With voting complete, an authorized filing of complaint must be made in court to acquire the title to the water system upon payment of the system’s fair market value, according to Town Attorney John Brown. The fair market value, however, has not yet been set.

Meanwhile in Missoula, Montana — where city officials are seeking ownership of the water system owned by Mountain Water Co., a sister company of Ranchos’ — a panel of water commissioners charged with finding the fair market value for Mountain Water Co. suggested Missoula’s drinking water system is worth $88.6 million, according to a Missoulian newspaper report.

The decision came after six days of testimony in Missoula County District Court. The commissioners were provided benchmark values of $45 million and $142 million. All three water commissioners agreed on the $88.6 million figure, the Missoulian reported.

Should the eminent domain process progress in Apple Valley, a similar panel would set the fair market value on Ranchos’ water system.

I think given the developments in Missoula (Tuesday), Brown said, the Mayor, Mayor Pro Tem and Council would like to sit down with Park Water officials and discuss a possible sale. That would avoid a lot of time and effort … I think the town would welcome the opportunity to sit down and try to resolve this short of having to go to court.

Source: Matthew Cabe, Daily Press