Apple Valley would be wise to work with Liberty Utilities (February 13, 2017)

On Election Day, Apple Valley voters did what the Town Council refused to do, and acted to hold government accountable for taxpayer spending. Measure V passed with more than 67 percent of the vote, overcoming numerous political attacks, including the late addition of Measure W to the November ballot. Measure W had one purpose, to undermine Measure V, the Right to Vote on Debt Act proposed by Pat Hanson and her late husband Chuck.

Because Measure W failed, Apple Valley wins. There will be no blank check allowing unlimited debt without voter approval.

The Town Council’s private law firm, Best Best & Krieger, can claim no big deal to the fact that Measure W failed, but the fact is that the Town spent a huge amount of taxpayer money to deny residents a vote on the cost of the water takeover as part of what is more than $1.6 million (and climbing) in public dollars to attempt an eminent domain takeover.

Why would a law firm advise government to take such extraordinary measures just to deny residents the right to vote on debt? There was no need for Measure W. The Town could have simply put the amount it wanted to borrow on the November 2016 ballot and given people the right to vote yes or no. This simple demonstration of accountability wouldn’t have cost taxpayers a dime.

The only logical conclusion is that allowing the citizens to vote would be fatal to the Town’s efforts to take over the water company, and thereby end the hourly billing for the lawsuit. Town officials don’t want to disclose how much it could really cost to acquire and maintain the system to current levels, because the real cost is likely much, much higher than they’ve been telling residents.

You may be wondering how we know this. The reality in this instance is that foresight is 20-20 and residents need look no further than the City of Claremont.

On Dec. 16, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ruled against the City of Claremont in its eminent domain lawsuit against Golden State Water Company. The reason this matters is that Apple Valley and Claremont’s cases are identical, right down to the same attorneys arguing the case. Best Best & Krieger has accrued more than $6 million in legal fees in the Claremont lawsuit, and now taxpayers are on the hook for this expense, plus millions more to reimburse Golden State’s legal expenses.

The City of Claremont needed to show that owning and operating the water system was a more necessary public use, but the judge found that the city couldn’t establish that it would be able to provide safe and reliable drinking water.

Even more important was the court determined that taxpayers would pay more for water service under government ownership should an eminent domain takeover be approved.

This wasn’t a political campaign with rhetoric and slick messages. It was a full trial in a court of law where facts mattered, both sides presented evidence and an experienced judge made a ruling. The ruling is summarized as follows: A government takeover of the local water system would result in inferior service and cost residents more, now and in the future.

The same thing will happen to Apple Valley taxpayers if the Town Council’s lawyers are allowed to keep the meter running, spending millions of our tax dollars to chase the eminent domain mirage.

Additionally, Liberty Utilities recently announced that it had asked state regulators to allow for a two-year base rate freeze. Base water rates as of Jan. 1, 2017, will remain in effect through to at least Jan. 1, 2019.

Liberty officials shared with the community that this request was part of an overall effort to cut administrative costs and provide time for a greater level of community outreach so that people can learn more about the new provider.

Sadly, instead of seeking to find common ground with Liberty, local politicians called it a PR stunt. The truth is that the politicians who falsely claimed Liberty wanted to raise rates by 14 percent, and their lawyers who are reviewing every public statement that is made, recognize that residents are learning the truth.

There is a tremendous risk to taxpayers by continuing to pay Best Best & Krieger millions for an unwinnable eminent domain lawsuit, particularly for a Town that is already cash strapped.

It may be more prudent for the Town of Apple Valley to cut its losses and see what can be achieved by collaboration. I strongly recommend that the town start meeting with Liberty officials to find a solution that respects Apple Valley’s ratepayers — and taxpayers. I also strongly encourage Liberty to do its due diligence to offer solutions that would benefit the Town as well.

The citizens of Claremont are on the hook for millions of dollars to pay Best Best & Krieger with nothing to show for it, and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. We know the outcome of this game, so let’s take a different approach, the right one, for Apple Valley. —Bryen Wright is an Apple Valley resident who mounted an unsuccessful City Council campaign last year.

By Bryen Wright

Source: Daily Press

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