Taking a stand against Helix Water District’s proposed five-year rate hike plan

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The Grossmont-Mt. Helix area is unique among East County regions. The residences along its mountainsides feature large yards, and the area is around 95 percent built out. 

The Grossmont-Mt. Helix area is unique among East County regions. The residences along its mountainsides feature large yards, and the area is around 95 percent built out. 

This further presents a consequent unique set of problems. Homeowners and other residents have become well aware that they must do their part to mitigate fire danger, by adequately maintaining and watering the plantings and trees on their properties. But with little room for future development to add ratepayers into the community, current residents will bear the brunt of expected skyrocketing water bills over the next few years.

These were the interrelated topics discussed on Wednesday, September 30, at the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association’s annual October Community Forum. The Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association (GMIA), founded in 1938, has since the organization’s inception been dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s semi-rural character by facilitating ways for residents to factor local community preservation preferences into land use and related decisions.

Larry Nichols, who chairs the GMIA Water Rate Committee, was emphatic during his presentation. “Water is getting more expensive at an alarming rate,” he said.

GMIA represents 1,100 dues-paying households, while further speaking on behalf of the over 7,000 residents in the Mt. Helix area. Membership in the group, under the organization’s bylaws, is open to residents in the GMIA defined community area, which is roughly bounded by freeways Interstate 8 on the north, Highway 94 to the south, and between Highways 125 and 54. The forum, one of several GMIA-sponsored annual events, was held at Murdock Elementary School, 4354 Conrad Drive.

A complicating factor in setting water rates is the statewide mandate for cutbacks in water use because of the ongoing drought. Compliance with lowering the amount of water used is both civic minded and financially attractive to residents. As use decreases, revenue from ratepayers decreases as well. However, the fixed costs that water districts must assume stay the same or increase, and new supplies of water are projected to cost more than formerly reliable sources. Water bills will necessarily rise under these conditions.

Helix’s mandated reduction is 20 percent. The proposed solution from the Helix Water District is a blanket five-year rate increase series, which was to be considered before a vote of the district’s Board of Directors at a public hearing on Wednesday, October 7. The plan, if passed, would end public input about water rates, bills and district policy from 2016 through 2020. The average water user could expect a 70 percent increase in bills over that period. 

The District has pointed to savings from eliminating the expenses of holding and sending out mailers announcing yearly public hearings. The Helix Water District provides water service to roughly 270,000 people in La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, and around Padre Dam and Lakeside.

GMIA objects to this five-year plan and has begun encouraging residents to oppose it vocally and strenuously. What is the organization’s ground for opposition? First, until 2013, the Helix Water District followed a publicly responsive schedule of yearly public hearings, with opportunities for input from the people about water rate increases. The two-year 2013-2015 plans was an anomaly. Five years without public hearings or even required mailings of notification, but with automatic water rate increases, will occur if the plan is approved. Second, GMIA makes the serious point that five years of projected certainty about drought, weather conditions and water supplies is dubious “during these uncertain times.”

Nichols made plain that members of GMIA understand the difficulties the Helix board and managers face. He stated that GMIA members are not against the 2015-2016 plan. But they are asking for the accountability of yearly dialogue with the Helix Water District Board of Directors, as circumstances may change over the half-decade 2016-2020. And citizens may have effective suggestions and creative solutions about how to reduce costs, if they are given information about rationales explaining each year’s increases.

For example, Nichols noted that water purchases account for just fewer than 41 percent of the Helix Water District’s budget, which is currently totaling over $82 million. Salary and benefit packages for the District’s roughly 150 employees and retirees take around 27 percent of the money, Nichols reported. Attendees discussed savings from possible structural adjustments what other public agencies have adopted when confronted with unfunded liabilities for employee benefits.

Nichols further outlined future political action, if the Board chose to approve the five-year rate increase plan. Directors on the Helix Water District serve four-year terms. The staggered elections had Divisions 2 and 4, whose Directors represent Mt. Helix, running for office last year. Next year’s elections will select Directors for Divisions 1, 3, and 5, representing the City of La Mesa, Lemon Grove and El Cajon. GMIA suggested that election of a “ratepayers representative” slate of three new Directors might be a long-term project that could result in rescinding the five-year plan.

More information about programs and membership in the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association can be found at www.gmia.net.

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