Editorial: A positive step to control the cost of water in Ojai

Staff Reports

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ojai voters in Golden State Water Co.’s service area have a rare opportunity in the Aug. 27 special election.

They can approve a historic shift aimed at making water more affordable for residents, businesses and other users, including the city of Ojai and the Ojai Unified School District.

The Star’s Editorial Board recommends a yes vote on Measure V, the only item on the ballot.

After examining the issue from all angles, we regard Measure V as a reasonable, responsible plan to address the community’s complaints about the ever-increasing cost of water.

If at least two-thirds of voters approve the measure, it will set in motion a process for property owners in the Golden State Water Co. service area to tax themselves to buy the company’s local assets. Then, the community can expect to get lower-cost water from the locally based, citizen-run Casitas Municipal Water District.

Because Casitas charges less for water than Golden State, Measure V was designed to finance the takeover without increasing the overall financial burden on the people of Ojai, counting both the cost of water and the expense of purchasing the Golden State assets.

And if history is any guide, future increases in the cost of water should be significantly smaller under Casitas than they would be under Golden State.

As a private, for-profit enterprise, Golden State is entitled to a return on its investment in the water system. The California Public Utilities Commission, based in San Francisco, regulates Golden State and approves its rates.

On the other hand, the Casitas district is a local public agency operating on a nonprofit basis and run by an elected five-member board of directors.

Casitas already supplies water to the Ojai Valley, including to Golden State Water Co.; Ojai voters already elect one of the five Casitas board members and Ojai property owners already pay taxes to Casitas.

We think it’s likely that Ojai water customers will come ahead, financially and in terms of civic pride and local ownership, under Casitas compared to the existing situation.

But it’s important for voters to understand what they’re getting under Measure V. It lays out a multi-step process that begins with a small bond issue to finance preliminary work, followed by a larger bond issue to pay for the actual buyout and upgrades to the local water system.

Golden State strenuously objects to the ballot measure and is waging a legal fight against it, challenging the financing method. That argument must be settled and an acquisition price determined before a buyout can occur.

If the acquisition cost skyrockets or legal problems prevent a buyout, then it wouldn’t happen and the second bond issue would be canceled. Taxpayers still would have to repay the first bond issue at a cost of a few dollars a month.

While Measure V doesn’t guarantee a buyout, it offers the public a credible, professional process to try to make that happen. It is endorsed by the city of Ojai, the Ojai Unified School District, the Chamber of Commerce, the Board of Realtors and many community leaders.

The Casitas district has a good track record and the know-how to operate the Ojai water system. The financing plan was carefully crafted to avoid increasing the overall cost to Ojai residents, including the property taxes that will pay off the bonds over 30 years.

Life offers no guarantees but some things we can be sure of: water runs downhill and the cost of water only goes up. If Ojai citizens want to limit increases in the cost of water, they’ll never have a better chance than this.