Lois Henry

Monday, Nov 05 2012 09:00 AM

Flier about rates raises eyebrows in Oildale water scuffle

By Lois Henry

In what could be seen as a last minute dirty campaign trick, some water customers in the middle of an Oildale turf war got an odd flier with their bills late last week.

The flier, put out by North of the River Municipal Water District (NOR) to its retail customers assured them they would not have a rate increase in 2013.

The flier also took Oildale Mutual Water Company to task for allegedly claiming NOR would have a rate increase.

"Rest assured that the Board of Directors for the North of the River Municipal Water District is committed to keeping your rates low, including NO RATE INCREASES during the coming year," the flier concludes.

Attributing the lack of an increase to current board members may have crossed line of electioneering by a public agency.

As a public agency, NOR is legally prohibited from participating in elections. Oildale Mutual, which is a private, nonprofit company, has every right to engage in the election process.

There are three board of director's seats up for grabs in this election. Two incumbent NOR board members are facing stiff opposition and a third seat has no incumbent running.

NOR General Manager David Aranda said the flier was merely intended to counter false information put out in an Oildale Mutual newsletter.

Aranda quoted from that newsletter saying it read: "...if left unchecked your water bill will go up."

That's true, but there's more to the context. The statement referred to what would happen to Oildale Mutual customers -- not NOR retail customers -- if Oildale Mutual continued to be charged by NOR for what the company deemed excessive and frivolous expenses.

Aranda insisted the flier wasn't political, saying this is the time of year he routinely goes over projected expenses and revenues for the coming year and determines if rates need to be adjusted.

This year, as opposed to 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, he said, rates would not need to go up. When asked if customers regularly received fliers about rate changes with their bills, Aranda said they did get fliers in 2009 and 2011.

Tracy Leach, a campaign consultant hired by Oildale Mutual to support three candidates for NOR's board, said the flier was obviously an election piece. But she shrugged it off.

"It only went to NOR retail customers, that's maybe 20 percent of the voters so I don't know how effective it was," she said.

To understand the battle between these two tiny water entities, you have to go back in time a little.

Oildale Mutual had been serving customers since 1919. In the 1960s it became apparent there wasn't enough groundwater to support a growing population. NOR was formed to contract for a share of state water. To build the infrastructure and pay for that water, it was set up as a public entity able to access property taxes, float bonds, etc.

For many years, NOR was simply a water wholesaler to Oildale Mutual and another retail company called Highland Knolls. Highland was taken over by NOR in the 1980s and that created billing issues that remain today and are the subject of a recent lawsuit by Oildale Mutual against NOR.

-- Lois Henry, Californian columnist

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