Sam Farr, Guest Commentary: Grand jury should investigate Marina Coast Water District

Peninsula Premier Admin

I remember in my sophomore English class at Carmel High reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” written more than 200 years ago. I have never forgotten his story of “water, water everywhere . . . Nor any drop to drink.” That is now usually recited as “Water, water everywhere, But not a drop to drink.”

I think that explains our Peninsula, surrounded by water, yet no new water to drink. The Ancient Mariner’s problem was weather-related, ours is solely politics.

I learned a lot about California’s political governance as Chair of the Assembly Local Government. Our problem is the existence of over 6,000 special districts. Think about it. We have only 58 counties, 450 cities, and about 1,200 school districts, but over 6,000 special districts. Many are duplicative or no longer necessary as special governments with the cost of expensive payrolls. But they are very difficult to merge or consolidate due to parochial politics.

Yet California has created in law a county entity designed to create and dissolve special districts and their areas of jurisdiction. It is called LAFCO, standing for Local Agency Formation Commission, made up of local officials, elected and appointed, representing our county, cities and special district governments. They have the power but lack the will to eliminate or merge districts no longer needed to provide the services under a separate government.

What was once thought as impossible, the merger of city fire departments, such as between Carmel and Monterey, is now the most cost-effective way to provide state-of-the-art protection. Special districts in rural fire protection have done the same in Carmel Valley and elsewhere. Merging the expensive costs of separate fire captains into a centralized command made fiscal sense. Local budget constraints made the unthinkable mergers politically possible.

We now need to do the same with two side-by-side public water districts. It makes sense in both fiscal management costs and combined water sources and distribution sense. If you look at Marina Coast Water District (MCWD) alongside the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District and the cost-effectiveness of each, it would be best for ratepayers of each for merger and/or dissolution of the Marina District.

I am familiar with the responsibility of LAFCO as I was its chair back in 1976 when I was a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and helped to hire its first staff. The fiscal abuse of MCWD not only cries out for a Monterey County grand jury investigation but also by the LAFCO board.

Marina Coast mismanagement has allocated outrageous salaries to its managers, higher than the salary of the Commandant of the Defense Language Institute, which has 4,000 students and hundreds of faculty. The Water District won the toss of the coin to provide water and sewer services for new construction at Fort Ord and has since milked the new customers for fees that their city ratepayers don’t have to pay. Examples are the flat rate fees, the hydrant meter sales fees and wheeling charges that Marina customers don’t pay. The fiscal impact is that the Ord Community pays Marina Coast Water (and Sewer) District a total of $24,724,713 in charges compared to the city residents who pay a total of $9,351,039 in charges. The new customers are carrying the expensive cost of overpaid management by $15.5 million more than city ratepayers.

Probably the most irresponsible expenses are for increased legal fees in connection with lawsuits against other governments.

In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the District spent $431,857 on legal fees, according to its website. That amount grew in fiscal year 2018-2019 to $1,386,189. It was estimated in its most recent annual report that the District spent $1,767,206 in legal fees in fiscal year 2019-2020, and $1,324,500 has been approved for legal fees in the current fiscal year. None of this litigation produced a drop more of water, but in fact, prevented the Peninsula from getting access to the new saltwater conversion plant north of Marina.

The time has come for ratepayers and voters to get a better bang for their buck through the merger of the two water districts.

The Ancient Mariner had no choice in getting access to drinking water; we do. Let’s make it happen.

Before retiring in 2017, Sam Farr served in Congress (from 1993) as representative of California’s 20th District, which includes the counties of Monterey and San Benito as well as portions of the counties of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz. 

Contributed by local news sources

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