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Legal fight brewing over proposed water rate hikes

An official with the Rancho Santa Fe Association did not mince words Thursday, Sept. 20, when he delivered an ultimatum to the Santa Fe Irrigation District board, regarding a proposal to raise the water district's rates by an average of 3 percent over each of the next three years.

"We have an appetite for a fight. If this doesn't turn out in a fair and equitable way, I guarantee we will go to court," said Rancho Santa Fe Association board member Mike Gallagher. "This is not a bluff, this is not fake, this is serious."

The Association, which represents homeowners within the Covenant area of Rancho Santa Fe, opposes the rate plan as it now stands, because it calls for a higher per-gallon cost to customers who use the most water. Association officials believe that a single rate for all customers, no matter how much water they use, is the fairest way for the water district to structure its rates.

The Association has spent money this year on both legal assistance and a water rate consultant in an effort to convince the water board to craft a plan that the Association finds fairer for its members.

A number of Association officials attended the water board's meeting on Thursday, Sept. 20, including three members of the Association board, the Association's general manager and an attorney representing the organization.

Immediately after Gallagher's comments, the water board adjourned to a brief closed session to discuss the potential litigation. No action was taken, but after the break, the water board came back and voted 3-2, with members Marlene King and Ken Dunford in opposition, to move forward with the rate plan and hold a public hearing on Nov. 15, as required by state law.

A final vote on the rate plan could come in December.

During a break in the meeting, Gallagher said the Association board has not taken a formal vote on whether to take legal action against the water district. His comments, he said, represent his own views as a board member, but that he also is aware of how other Association board members are thinking on the issue.

Gallagher said his preference would still be for the water district to work together with the Association to come up with a rate plan that both sides consider fair and equitable.

Water board president Mike Hogan said during the break that he could not comment on the potential litigation, but that he felt his agency had gone out of its way to seek input from the public, including the Association, as it worked on the new rate plan over the past six months.

"We've gone to extraordinary measures to provide public access to the (Santa Fe) board, both verbally and in writing," Hogan said, "so the board could consider the information during its deliberations."

Those measures included special rules for workshop sessions, which allowed presentations by groups and individuals. The Association made two presentations during the workshops, said Hogan, and numerous Rancho Santa Fe residents also addressed the water board.

The water board "listened to and considered and discussed" the information presented by the Association, Hogan said.

The water board's split vote on the rate plan mirrored a vote taken in 2015, the last time the board considered a three-year rate plan. Although the board's membership has changed, the split once again fell along geographic lines, with the three directors representing portions of Solana Beach voting in favor of the rate plan, and the two directors who represent Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch opposed.

Residents of the coastal portion of the district generally have smaller lot sizes, and use less water, than their neighbors to the east, where lot sizes and water consumption are higher.

Rancho Santa Fe officials have long felt that with the water district's tiered rates, inland residents are in effect subsidizing rates for coastal residents.

Water district officials have countered that the tiered rates are fair, because once the district uses the available, cheaper water from Lake Hodges, it must buy more costly imported water to serve its customers. Therefore, as water use goes up, the water needed to meet demand is more expensive.

The new rate plan will include only two tiers, down from the current four-tier rate structure, which Hogan said represents a compromise and a move toward the Association's position. The two-tier rate structure also sends a conservation message, Hogan said.

But the Association still feels that the current proposed rate plan - which calls for the first annual increase to take effect in January - is unfair, said Association General Manager Christy Whelan.

"SFID is punishing their best customers," Whelan said, by charging a higher rate when a customer uses more water.

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