Count begins on groundwater fee protests


Well owners: If you aren’t at the Santa Clara Valley Water
District meeting today and haven’t turned in your letter protesting
the groundwater charges, time has expired. Protest letters are due
by the conclusion of public comment Tuesday morning at the SCVWD
headquarters in San Jose.
Well owners: If you aren’t at the Santa Clara Valley Water District meeting Tuesday and haven’t turned in your letter protesting the groundwater charges, time has expired. Protest letters are due by the conclusion of public comment Tuesday morning at the SCVWD headquarters in San Jose.

Counting will start at 8 a.m. Wednesday and the water district predicts it will take up to three days to go through every envelope and verify the signatures, with a private Certified Public Accountant overlooking the process.

According to the agreement between SCVWD and C.G. Uhlenberg LLP based in Redwood City, the CPA firm will charge $100 an hour to validate the process but district clerk Michele King will do the counting. It will take about 10 minutes to verify and count each letter, said Susan Siravo, the water district’s public information officer. King will check the name, address/accessor’s parcel number and well number against the list of owners and also the name will be verified against the list of parcel owners.

“The third party will certify that the protest validation and tabulation process was done properly and in an unbiased manner. We want the community to know the process included a chain-of-custody protocol to ensure that each envelope received would be logged and validated in accordance with the guidelines approved by the district board of directors in its Jan. 26 resolution,” the water district wrote in a statement Monday.

Letters postmarked by April 27 will not be accepted; they must be at the headquarters by Tuesday in order to be counted. Multiple phone calls to the C.G. Uhlenberg LLP office to find out more about their involvement in the process were not returned.

A simple majority vote is needed of 3,644 well owners in South County for the monthly fee to be eliminated beginning in July. The water district said it will lose almost $14 million for South County if the protest is deemed successful – $6 million of which will come from a perchlorate surcharge over two years. That funding is regulated to replenish the groundwater basin, water recycling, water conservation and environmental projects.

The water district would not reveal how many protest letters it has received, because not all protests have been turned in, Siravo said. The district did report at Thursday’s public hearing at Gilroy City Hall that about 65 people have called with questions about the protest.

The North County is also eligible to protest the charges, which if it passes in all of Santa Clara County, the district would face a loss of $63 million. The blow would sucker-punch the district, it says, forcing them to implement fees for well permits and increase rates for treated water, recycled water and surface water rates to supplement its $305 million annual budget.

Senior project manager Darin Taylor said starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday, the assigned CPA will count the protest letters in a secured room at the water district headquarters.

“They’ll be locked in there for as long as it takes,” Taylor said.

The water board made its hiring announcement Thursday evening at the public hearing on groundwater charges. Eight people spoke before the board to air their grievances with the protest process, specifically the confusion of the letter that was sent out Feb. 26 which is in fact a ballot to vote for or against paying the fee.

“The method of this process was perfectly designed for people to not read it,” said Randy Scianna, holding the four-page letter that in the first three pages describes the water district’s no-rate increase and not until the fourth page does it give instructions as to how to mail in a protest. “This is perfect if you don’t want any response.” He added that whether it was done intentionally or not, “if you’re trying to be transparent, this is deceptive.”

Morgan Hill City Manager Ed Tewes asked the water board to consider reducing the fees from $275 per acre foot for municipal and industrial use to $245. He said Morgan Hill, which owns eight wells, will not protest the fee because it would do more harm than good since the consequences would reduce services such as replenishing the aquifer. Within the groundwater fee is $2.4 million that will pay for legal fees associated with the perchlorate crisis in 2004. Another $2.4 million will be inserted in the groundwater fee next year also, if the protest is unsuccessful.

San Martin well owner Bob Cerruti said he found it “very disturbing that the water district will charge us for a problem Olin has created.” He pleaded with the board, “don’t put it on the backs of the rate payers.”

Tewes asked that the water district spread out the $6 million it needs to repay legal fees to Olin over six years instead of two.

“We’ll pay the interest if it’s spread out … and (you) lower the rates,” Tewes said.

The ability to protest stems from a decision by Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy in November that said the district was illegally collecting groundwater fees, which are supposed to be put to a yearly vote by well owners under Proposition 218 and the Santa Clara Valley Water District Act. Murphy determined that the water district had to refund San Jose-based Great Oaks Water Co., which sued the district, more than $4.6 million – a year’s worth of illegally collected groundwater charges – after determining Great Oaks was overcharged in 2005-06.

Proposition 218 requires the district to send out notices outlining the protest process. A majority vote by well owners – or 1,823 objecting votes in South – would mean groundwater charges will be void for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The district now charges $16.50 per acre foot for agricultural use and $275 per acre foot for municipal and industrial use in South County. An acre foot is enough water to supply a family of five for two years. The district has proposed not to raise rates for the third straight year.

The water district provides water supply and flood protection to the county’s 1.8 million people. The agency employs about 750 people.