Writer Gets Four Key Things Wrong on Ojai

The recent article in the Santa Barbara Independent gets four key things wrong in its attempts to tout the government takeover of the water system in Ojai, California as a success story:

1) The author’s claims on cost savings are false and blatantly ignore the fact that Ojai residents have paid dramatically higher taxes as a result of the water system purchase.

The author states that “the switch to a municipal water provider has saved customers a collective $3 million per year.” However, the notion that “savings” have occurred is total fantasy. Casitas Municipal Water District implemented a 12 percent rate hike in July 2017 and announced that rates would increase an additional 12 percent each year for the following four years. 1

But, even more egregiously, this claim completely ignores how the $44 million purchase of the water system in 2017 was financed by the largest property tax increase in Ojai history. The tax increase has added between $349 to $2,093 (depending on parcel size) to each residents’ property taxes annually for 30 years. 2

These are the facts. The purchase of the water system has directly resulted in large cost INCREASES for Ojai residents.

2) The author blindly celebrates low rates without considering the potential impact on infrastructure repair and investment.

The author’s false claims on rates are also wildly shortsighted. Just like other activist groups like Food & Water Watch, Ojai FLOW blindly celebrates and advocates for low water rates without considering the potential impact on water systems. When a water system is underfunded, repairs and upgrades are delayed and infrastructure suffers. This directly puts public health at risk by raising the potential for unsafe drinking water to be delivered to homes.

So, while Ojai FLOW, Food & Water Watch, and other activists focus only on a cost comparison narrative, it is important to consider the performance of utilities. The data is clear: multiple studies covering decades and tens of thousands of EPA data points clearly show that privately-owned water systems are significantly less likely to incur violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act than government-owned systems.

In a time when water systems across the country are facing a severe infrastructure crisis requiring urgent investment, it is ridiculous for activists to continue blindly advocating for low rates without considering utility performance.

3) The author falsely blames Golden State Water for water main leaks.

The article states that “115 leaks sprang up in the 90-year-old system” after Golden State Water turned over control to Casitas Municipal Water District in 2017. The author blames the company for the leaks, quoting a Casitas employee who said that, “Golden State left a system that was in very, very bad shape.”

However, according to data submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission, the Ojai system only had 17 main leaks in 2016, 16 main leaks in 2015, and 22 main leaks in 2014 – the final three years of Golden State Water operations. Given that Ojai is a groundwater system in hilly terrain, maintaining proper water pressure is extremely important to avoid leaks. It is likely that Casitas has not been maintaining proper water pressure, which has resulted in a 500% increase in leaks since it took over the system in 2017.

4) The author ignores Casitas’ poor record of customer service since taking over the Ojai water system.

Finally, the author also ignores well-documented facts about the customer service failures of Casitas Municipal Water District since taking over the Ojai system. For instance:

Despite Golden State Water providing customer and billing data in the exact format requested during the transition period in July 2017, Casitas sent its first water bill to Ojai customers late, on October 31. That bill charged customers for three months of service, and those that did not pay were billed late fees and threatened with shutoffs. In response to customer complaints, Casitas told the local ABC affiliate at the time that, “customers had plenty of time to pay for this water service.” 3

During the Thomas Fire of December 2017, some customers who were forced to evacuate returned home to find their water shut off due to nonpayment. When customers raised the state of emergency with Casitas as a reason for nonpayment, the authority said that “the bill was due before the fires.” 4

1 Ojai Valley News, “Casitas Municipal votes to raise its water rates” 11 May 2017

2 Ventura County Star, “Patrick R. Scanlon: Measure V holds risks for Ojai” 17 August 2013.

3 KEYT NEWS (ABC), “Several evacuated Ojai residents return home without water” 29 December 2017.

4 KEYT NEWS (ABC), “Several evacuated Ojai residents return home without water” 29 December 2017; Santa Barbara, “Customers Water Shut Off in Casitas Water District” 29 December 2017.

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