Water Board Approves Rate Hike

Increase Is Meant to Eliminate District’s Rising Deficit

The Montecito Water District Board of Directors on Tuesday increased monthly rates for every customer class except commercial users in a hearing that by historical standards had a low attendance.

Directors said the increase was necessary to offset the growing costs to treat water, to continue maintenance of the district’s facilities and to stay involved in the increasingly more expensive State Water Project. The rate hike was especially vital, directors said, to prevent the district from slipping further into deficit.

“I’m shocked at how difficult it is to keep costs down,” said Dick Shaikewitz, who was elected to the board last November. “The biggest worry for me is having enough water if there’s a drought. It’s one thing to say don’t water your plants, but it’s another to say you can’t have any drinking water.”

The boost to monthly water costs will apply to every customer class, except for commercial, which would stay at $4.25 per hundred cubic feet. Residential customer rates will increase from $3.47 to $3.75; schools from $3.23 to $3.49; agricultural $1.56 to $1.68; and recreational from $1.96 to $2.12.

Bob Roebuck, the district’s general manager, said no increase for commercial customers was justifiable because “they’re already paying their fair share.” Costs for commercial customers, who make up nearly 3% of the district’s 5,328 customers, have not gone up since 1999, according to district records.

From a legal perspective, the district cannot charge rates that are higher than the cost to provide the service, according to Chip Wullbrandt, the district’s attorney. Wullbrandt said a recent cost analysis determined that commercial customers were already paying an amount that “equaled or exceeded the cost of service.”

The rate increase was opposed by one director, Sam Frye, who tried to delay a decision to allow more discussion on the subject and “come up with alternatives.”

“Once rates are increased we tend not to go back,” Frye said.

Tuesday’s hearing was attended by handful of district customers, all of whom opposed the rate increase on the basis that it was unfair, inequitable and provided no incentive to commercial users to conserve water.

“If you continue on this current course, residential customers will be paying more than commercial customers,” said David Strauss, an Ashley Road resident. “This doesn’t encourage commercial customers to conserve.”

But the board’s president, Jan Abel, maintained that water conservation is a sensitive issue for the board, saying she approved the rate increase knowing the district would be holding workshops later this year to study and promote water conservation.

Only nine people attended Tuesday’s discussion, a paltry number compared to a hearing in December of 2006, when a district proposal to unify its water rates drew more than 100 residents. That hearing had taken place at night, while Tuesday’s proceedings began at 2 pm, a time that critics said made it difficult to attract a large audience.

“The board should not schedule important public meetings when most residents are unable to attend because of work or the need to pick up their children from school,” Strauss wrote in a January letter to the board.

Roebuck said the 2006 hearing had been scheduled at night because it dealt with a “radical revision” to water rates.

Fiscal Challenges

The rate increase, the eleventh for the district in 14 years, reflects the water office’s increasing difficulties to keep up with growing costs to offer its product. The district is currently sharing $20-million costs with the Carpinteria Water District to put a cover on the Ortega Reservoir, the largest of the Montecito department’s 11 water storage facilities. The completion of that cover is scheduled for the end of June.

The district will also be doing work at the Cater Treatment Plant, a facility that consolidates water treatment for three agencies – the Montecito, Carpinteria and City of Santa Barbara water districts.

Roebuck said the rate increases would also be important for infrastructure maintenance. The majority of Montecito’s water system, Roebuck said, was established in the 1920s and will require “major investments to rehabilitate ageing water pipelines, reservoirs and other systems.”

But the primary cost concerns deal with the State Water Project, a program approved by voters in 1997 that accounts for $4.5 million, or 40%, of the department’s annual $11-million budget. The operating and maintenance costs of that project have risen about 12%, according to a district handout.

The financial crunch has placed the district in dire financial straits. The 2005-06 operating budget showed a net loss of more than $130,000 while financial obligation records showed a “total debt outstanding” of more than $25 million, of which nearly $5.5 million represents a construction loan from the Department of Water Resources for the Ortega Reservoir Project.

If the board had not approved the rate increase by June 30, district revenues would have been “approximately $341,893 less than budgeted,” according to a board memo dated February 20. Shaikewitz said this was because the board’s approval of this year’s “budget was predicated upon a rate increase.”

This information did not sit well with critics who charged that the board cornered itself into a rate increase without consideration of public consensus.

“Why schedule a public meeting to get comments, when it's a foregone conclusion that if you don’t enact the resolution before this minute, there will be a financial meltdown at the water department?” Strauss said. “You simply waste the public’s time with this kind of farce.”

Westmont Wins Masterplan Appeal

Two weeks after Westmont College’s multi-hundred-million-dollar expansion project gained unanimous approval, the County Board of Supervisors awarded the liberal arts school with an added bonus. On Tuesday, supervisors granted an appeal Westmont filed in November based on two conditions of approval made by the Montecito Planning Commission. The 5-0 decision effectively relaxes traffic restrictions for the school and nullifies a maligned decal program that had been designed to track how many Westmont students park off-campus.

“This has come out exactly the way we thought it would turn out,” said Cliff Lundberg, Westmont’s executive vice president.

Until Tuesday, Westmont had been limited to 3,355 average daily trips on Cold Spring Road, the main thoroughfare to the college. The school has agreed to set a cap of 3,500 trips per day, which is about 2,000 trips fewer than what the Montecito Community Plan allows.

Tuesday’s decision also eliminates a decal program that was supposed to require Westmont students to put a decal on their car if they didn’t have a parking permit. College officials had criticized the decal provision as counter-intuitive, asserting that the school does enough policing of its own to limit students parking off-campus.

In their approval, the five supervisors recognized that Westmont had made enough compromises and worked intently to satisfy its immediate neighbors. Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone let the traffic situations in neighboring parts of UCSB and Santa Barbara City College weigh heavily in his determination.

“Westmont has endured tremendous cooperation with the County,” Firestone said. “There’s a question of fairness here that means a lot to me.”

North County supervisors chose hard words to deplore the decal condition, at times ridiculing the concept as a reflection of poor government policy.

“That is the most impractical idea I have ever heard,” said Supervisor Joni Gray.

Daily traffic on Cold Spring Road will be monitored by counters that will record results into a database. The statistics will be collected and analyzed periodically to determine whether Westmont is staying in compliance. If not, the school would be required to involve 30% of its faculty and staff in a “transportation management program” and would add a one-year quiet period in between construction phases.

The appeal approval does allow Westmont to pull construction permits on the first phase, an initial 150,000 square feet of development. However, project opponents declared two weeks ago they’d be filing suit against the County, an event that would likely put construction plans in abeyance.

Coral Casino Opponent Abandons Legal Action

Cynthia Ziegler, the core member of the group that pulled the renovation of the Coral Casino into more than two year’s worth of legal wrangling, said last week she was officially not taking any further legal action.

Ziegler’s Coral Casino Preservation Committee opposed the rehabilitation of the club on the basis that construction would alter architecturally and historically significant elements of the building. The local coalition stopped its fight just short of the California Supreme Court, allowing the January 29 deadline to file a petition to pass.

The deadline expiration was widely seen as the end to litigation, but Ziegler’s announcement offers the first concrete confirmation.

Ziegler said she felt her group had not “accomplished our goal of preserving Coral Casino in its most authentic state” and was disappointed that boards and commissions hadn’t taken “preservation of important county landmarks” more seriously.

“I think the community was diminished by the controversy and the result,” she said.

Though fellow members of the Coral Casino have repeatedly attempted to expel her from the club, Ziegler insisted she would continue her membership, saying the “camaraderie, healthy exercise and beautiful location are still very appealing.”

Even as a virtual pariah in a club she’s attended since she was young, she said felt no “conflict at all given how hard our group tried hard to preserve what was rare and beautiful.”

Greg Rice, club owner Ty Warner’s top representative, has said Coral Casino management would not “punish anyone for going to public hearings and opposing the project.”

Westmont President Will Take Over July 1

After a lengthy search that involved reviews of more than 200 résumés and multiple visits from candidates, Westmont College has named its eighth president, the school announced last week. Gayle D. Beebe, who for the last seven years as president of Spring Arbor University guided the Michigan school through a major capital campaign to add new campus facilities, will take over Westmont on July 1, a full year since past president Stan Gaede accepted a position at Gordon College, in Massachusetts.

“Westmont’s distinction and national profile will provide some incredible opportunities to make a life-changing, culture-influencing contribution to our world,” Beebe said in a press release. “We look forward to the great work that lies ahead.”

Dr. David K. Winter, who has served as interim president since Gaede’s departure, said Beebe was “bright, articulate, warm and relational, energetic and principled” and he expected the new president to have an active role not just in the lives of Westmont students, but in the “Santa Barbara community” at large.

Merlin W. Call, the chair of the 16-member search committee, described Beebe as the top person to steer Westmont into future generations.

“He has a strong Christian faith and is a proven academic leader and has been deeply involved in the community surrounding the university,” Call said.

Beebe attended Westmont for one semester in 1980 before earning his bachelor’s degree at George Fox University, in Oregon. He has master’s degrees in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, in philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont Graduate University, and in business administration from Claremont’s Peter F. Drucker Center. In 1997, he received his doctorate in philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont.

Beebe and his wife, Pam, have three children: Anna, 14, Elizabeth, 12, and Ricky, 8.