With offer made to Golden State Water, residents turn to Ojai for guidance

After a year lull, the city of Claremont is breaking its silence on the waterfront.

Officials recently confirmed that a town hall meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, November 6 at Claremont’s Taylor Hall to discuss information on the city’s potential water system purchase. To date, the Claremont Council and city administrators have remained tight-lipped on the water acquisition, and documents regarding the Water Acquisition Feasibility Study kept under wraps.

In the meantime, locals are preparing for what may be next in the Claremont’s battle with Golden State Water Company. Several have turned their attention to groups like Ojai Flow, a grassroots campaign—not unlike Claremonters Against Outrageous Water Rates—that recently succeeded in passing a bond measure to acquire their water system from Golden State Water.

About 75 people gathered together at the Hughes Center last week, eager to glean information from Ojai Flow volunteer Richard Hajas, who provided insight as to how the city of Ojai navigated their fight with Golden State Water and successfully start down the path of eminent domain.

Not easily, Mr. Hajas noted. He was frank with his audience, admitting the process has been lengthy and chaotic, and is far from over. After finally convincing the publicly-owned Las Casitas Waster District to absorb their system, and successfully approving their bond measure, Ojai Flow prepares to head to court next month to settle a dispute with Golden State over the validity of the bond.

The starting point was finding common ground in their desire for local control.

“We all agreed we aren’t dealing with the [California Public Utilities Commission] anymore,” Mr. Hajas said. “And we agreed Golden State has to be replaced.”

Before Golden State or other utility companies can increase their fees, approval of the CPUC, a governor-appointed board, is mandated. As noted on Thursday night, however, utility companies regularly make requests for large increases, sometimes of 20 percent or more. The CPUC will often present a compromise between the company and the consumer, but Mr. Hajas noted that compromise often still means a 15 percent increase. The CPUC recently approved a 16 percent increase for Claremont residents and others of Golden State Water's Region III.

Taking control of the water system is not an inexpensive endeavor. After conducting a feasibility study, Mr. Hajas and Ojai Flow volunteers determined it would be a multi-million dollar affair, an amount that will likely be driven up by eminent domain proceedings. Mr. Hajas also estimated, however, that Ojai water consumers have paid about $5.6 a year to Golden State Water.

"If we had the same service from [Las Casitas Water District] we would only pay $1.9 million," Mr. Hajas noted. "You can easily do the math that we knew right away that our community could afford almost $3.4 million a year. That’s how much we could afford to spend to buy Golden State.”

Though Claremont and Ojai are fighting a similar battle over water rates, there are significant differences between the 2 communities. For one, Ojai has approximately 20 percent of the water connections Claremont has, and, where Claremont is one of 33 cities that make up Golden State's Region 3, Ojai is treated as its own region. Claremont resident Marilee Scaff pointed out another notable difference, which will become more apparent should the city of Claremont, like Ojai, approve a bond measure to its water system. As opposed to a revenue bond, taxing consumers of a service, Ojai's $60 million bond measure will be paid back through a special property tax on all properties within the city. Claremont would be unwise to follow in this path, Ms. Scaff advises.

"Schools, colleges, churches, retirement communities are all exempt from tax on the property," Ms. Scaff pointed out. "We've got too many of those, we'd better go with the revenue bond...it would not be fair."

The fight for local control is far from over for either Golden State entities, and will likely grow more difficult as more groups, like Tustin, follow suit. However, Thursday's discussion strengthened Ms. Scaff's resolve in supporting the city's fight for local control.

"The League of Women Voters asked the city of Claremont in 1940 to buy their water company, at which time with the cost of about $8000, but they couldn't afford it," Ms. Scaff said. "A number of times since the city has considered it, but they each time just couldn't quite figure they could afford it. The fact is it grows increasingly expensive, but the Golden State rates are going to keep going up...The only alternative is local control."

—Beth Hartnett