As water district rates continue to climb, where’s the oversight?

Water rates in Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Oak Park are on the rise again, expected to increase about $3 per month for the average user starting in January.

The incessant upward trend comes as no surprise. The two local districts—Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in Calabasas, Agoura and Westlake; and Oak Park Water Service in Oak Park—push their rates higher every year, sometimes twice a year.

It’s ironic that even in a recession, when commercial businesses are cutting expenses, laying off employees and lowering prices, the cost of water continues to climb. Users complain that even when they use less water, they still pay more.

“One of the biggest ironies in this business is the more people conserve, the worse the districts do financially,” said Mike Paule, chair of the Triunfo Water District, which oversees Oak Park Water.

Both local water districts receive their wholesale supplies from the Metropolitan Water District. The locals blame the latest rate hike on an increase from Metropolitan, but passing the buck is a convenient out, an easy way to disguise the lack of true costcutting at the local level. That’s especially true for Las Virgenes, which has more administrative overhead than Oak Park.

With wholesale costs up and revenues down, Las Virgenes must do the same thing any other business does in order to survive: continue to cut expenses. Although the district reduced its staff from 120 to 110 employees this year, its salaries and lifetime benefits remain extraordinarily high compared to the private sector’s. Almost a third of the staffers receive six-figure salaries. A public affairs assistant is paid $98,000 annually, an administrative assistant deputy clerk gets almost $91,000. Four secretaries on staff receive more than $61,000 each. An intern is paid almost $27,000—and near fully-paid pensions for all workers remain the norm. All in all, it’s great work if you can get it, but it shouldn’t come at the ratepayers’ expense.

“My belief is that there are internal things we should be looking at first before we just increase our water prices,” Las Virgenes board director Barry Steinhardt said—to his credit.

We’re waiting for that oversight to produce some results.

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