On Thursday morning, October 17, I had an opportunity to discuss this massive rate increase with San Lorenzo Valley Water District Director Randall Brown. As a historian who is interested in the ecology of the San Lorenzo Valley water systems and watershed areas, he has a lot to say about the management of our water system. He makes no secret about his concern for the state of the aging infrastructure that delivers water to more than 7,000 rate payers. Being one of those rate payers, I share his concern. I asked him about the decision making process that led the District to the conclusion that they needed so much more money. Our resulting conversation identified additional subjects beyond the rate increase for which I should be concerned.
One of those subjects relates to the lack of public involvement in the planning process. Generally, the only time the public gets involved in the water issues is when an increase in water rates is proposed. We are shocked when we are asked to pay more money, but at the same time we are too busy to pursue our legal option to protest the increase and thus possibly prevent it from occurring. We are often also too busy to engage with the district respecting resource management. We are left in the dark, not by lack of opportunity to learn, but by lack of taking advantage of the opportunity.
During the past year, my household and our neighbors, have been attending the SLVWD board and committee meetings. Only by doing so have we learned about the issues that we have discussed and published on our website (slvwd.co). That is why, when Randall Brown discussed the water rate issues with us, we were able to easily follow his line of reasoning. He believes that if more people from the community were to show a similar interest, we would be able to provided the basis for rate payer sub-committees that could provide insight to the district about the projects that they propose.
One of my concerns has been the amount of rate payer funds that are spent on legal expense, outside services and contract services. In the absence of committee based sub-committees, the district has turned to the outside for exploratory advice and other studies upon which they depend when determining which projects to pursue. Although this is the way that many districts operate, others also will first listen to the professionals who make up their sub-committees. When people who have professional credentials provide volunteer support they can narrow down options and save money that would otherwise be used to pay the exorbitant rates of contracted service organizations.
I observed how a sub-committee would work at the October 17 board meeting. Mr. Mark Hansen, a rate payer, is a highly qualified construction expert. He investigated the proposed cost of developing the Campus Project that had been designed to consolidate the office and operation functions for the SLVWD. He was able to determine that the price per square foot that the district was willing to pay for developing the facility was grossly overstated and that the project could be accomplished at a substantially lower cost. Additionally, he determined that the design did not adequately consider the needs of the office staff, but overprovided office space for the General Manager. Mr. Hansen provided a written report for the board's consideration that included detail information to support his thesis. I mention this event as only one example of the benefit of community based sub-committees. Just imagine if Mr. Hansen's information had been available to the district prior to spending so much money on the architect's plans and consulting fees? The district may have been able to invest more wisely in devising a solution for the acquisition of more suitable office and operating facilities. They could have saved over $3 million and might not be asking for another $9 million to finance that project.
Randall Brown believes that the district needs to have more qualified input from the San Lorenzo Valley people before the 'yes or no decision' is made respecting the projects that influence the use of rate payer funds. He said "we need dialog beforehand and not have to engage in the polemics that follow when decisions are made without the public's input".
I agree with him and so do the SLV Watchdogs. However, I was saddened when I heard another Board Director's comment that "trying to manage community committees is like herding cats." Well, maybe so, but I have met many fine cats that respond in a very positive way when they are well treated. Although I might not use the same 'cat metaphor' to describe our rate payers, I understand that it may be an initial challenge to engage people who are as qualified as is Mr. Hansen. He has taught us, though, that there is at least one professional who has proven how important it is to volunteer in this capacity. I believe that there are many more rate payers out there that are so qualified and who may, indeed, be willing to serve on community based sub-committees.
I thank Director Randall Brown for sharing his insights with me. I agree with his perspective that well formed community based sub-committees would provide professional volunteer service that could lower the amount of ratepayer funds that is currently used for contract and outside services. A conservative estimate of how much was spent on this type of service during the past seven years is about $4.7 million. If community based sub-committees could trim even 10 percent off of that amount, wouldn't it be worth "herding cats?"
However, the "herding cats" metaphor is inapplicable when used to apply towards a group of professionals. By their very nature, a professional is such because they are qualified to define their own methodology and organize the output of that effort to achieve targeted goals. The purpose of such a sub-committee would be to provide the professional opinions and information that would inform the Board regarding aspects of topics for which they need qualified input. Professional people only require the scope of a problem to be defined, not management in problem resolution.
Suellene Petersen is a member of the San Lorenzo Valley Watchdogs community group which opposes the merits of the proposed San Lorenzo Valley Water District rate increase.