Water system control crucial for Apple Valley (July 29, 2018)

After seven months of assessment, I’ve come to the conclusion control of our water system is crucial for the future of the Town of Apple Valley.

Next month, a crucial court hearing will give us a better idea as to when our eminent domain case will be heard. That follows a win in court earlier this year throwing out Liberty Utilities’ efforts to suspend acquisition under the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA).

It has taken some time to get to where we’re at — as it should. Eminent domain is something no government entity should take lightly. In Apple Valley, every effort was made to try to convince the system’s owners that it needed to do something about the exorbitant rates it was charging customers. The town would prefer a negotiated solution that ends this expensive and time-consuming endeavor and results in community ownership but that does not appear to be an option Liberty is willing to consider.

Ultimately, it was the customers of Liberty Utilities — local residents and businesses — who convinced the town to pursue acquisition to address the ever increasing rates with little to no input, transparency, or accountability. Residents and businesses have strongly supported that effort.

In my first seven months I have learned more about the need for acquisition and agree with the overwhelming majority of the public it is necessary:

Apple Valley’s water rates under Liberty and previous corporate owners have risen dramatically over the past several years. Liberty retroactively raised rates 25 percent in 2015 (Advice Letter 204-W), then raised them 8.5 percent in 2016 (Advice Letter 205-W) and almost 5 percent in 2017 (Advice Letter 219-W). Now they have asked for rate increases in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Approximately 85 percent of Californians get their water from publicly-owned utilities and have a say in the rates they pay. A corporate-owned water provider such as Liberty can charge whatever rates the California Public Utilities Commission allows it to; local voters have no say.

The town is following the will of the people in pursuing eminent domain. High water rates have compromised quality of life and threaten economic growth.

The Measure F vote a year ago was a message to the town to continue the fight. The ballot measure, approved by nearly 58 percent of voters, authorizes the town to incur debt of up to $150 million to acquire the water system.

Including its organized opposition to Measure F, Liberty has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on elections designed to stop town acquisition of the water system. They use profits they get from ratepayers to campaign for rules that would allow them to charge more.

All infrastructure in Apple Valley, including water, is incrementally more costly per capita or per home due to our larger lots and lower density. However, factoring in numerous surcharges, the cost of water to Apple Valley Water System customers as of last May was 2.5 to 3 times higher than in neighboring communities.

Liberty has failed to support the town’s attempts to use recycled water on golf courses, parks and other public facilities, and even threatened to sue if we used recycled water to conserve our precious drinking water supplies. Are those the actions of a responsible partner looking out for your best interests with the rates you pay?

The town is committed to stabilizing rates and protecting the interests of our residents and businesses. We have promised to retain most, if not all, of the Liberty employees if we acquire the system. We know that based on a fair purchase price, the savings from eliminating profit margins and corporate costs would be more that sufficient to cover any debt.

Unfortunately, even though it was and is clearly the right decision to fight this fight for the good of our residents we don’t know how the judge will decide our case. We don’t know what value will be set for the system if we are able to win the fight. We have a good argument but those decisions ultimately rest with the court.

The bottom line is this: The people of Apple Valley rely on their elected leaders to protect them. This includes protection from crime and protection from corporate greed. Water is a public asset that should not be controlled by the profit motives of an outside company. Claremont fought this fight and lost but Missoula, Montana and Ojai, California won.

In a follow up in the coming weeks, I’ll explain why our case is more similar to Missoula, and how it’s different from Claremont.

Doug Robertson is Apple Valley’s town manager.

Source: Daily Press