Mesa Water District’s Sleight Of Hand At Ratepayers’ Expense

[Originally published in the OC Register on October 5, 2017]

While a good magician never divulges how a trick is done, the best illusionists will admit that the key to being successful is diverting the audience’s attention away from the sleight of hand.

Mesa Water District, it would seem, has embraced this theory and applied it to running a public agency. In the year since the district rushed to place an advisory measure on the November 2016 ballot regarding potential consolidation with Costa Mesa Sanitary District, Mesa Water’s sleight of hand has been in full effect, attempting to divert ratepayers from focusing on a number of serious issues.

Oh, and a word about that advisory vote that Mesa Water District officials continually point to as an overwhelming public outcry for consolidation: It garnered less than 55 percent support for an action Mesa purported would produce “… a one-time savings of up to $15.6 million, which equates to (a rebate of) $650 per ratepayer, and annual savings of as much as $2.7 million.” CMSD has recently learned that the “analysis” which reportedly yielded these assumptions, conducted by a long-time Mesa vendor, was reviewed and heavily edited by senior management at the water district prior to its presentation to the Mesa Water Board of Directors.

Since that vote, as has been reported by various media sources, Mesa Water has managed to make news regionally and nationally. Mesa Water’s General Manager, Paul Shoenberger, has become one of the highest-paid public agency executives in the region, even exceeding the salary of Orange County CEO Frank Kim, despite the fact that Mesa employs 64 individuals.

Mesa Water Board members and senior staff have continued a tradition of flying high at the ratepayers’ expense, paying the most expensive airfare for repeated flights to Sacramento and elsewhere, ringing up huge bills for exorbitant dinners at posh restaurants and even using limousines to be shuttled to and from the airport here and in Washington, D.C.

Contrary to Mesa Water District’s repeated references to their commitment to transparency, CMSD had to file suit in Orange County Superior Court this June to obtain documents related to the two studies commissioned by Mesa Water focusing on potential consolidation. Revelations from these documents are just now being brought to light.

In late August, Mesa Water’s board voted to proceed with a 25 percent rate hike (5 percent per year over five years), asserting this was necessitated by ratepayers using less water. Should this increase go forward, it would mean that Mesa Water customers will experience 15 consecutive years of water rate increases between 2009 and 2023, for a total rate increase of a jaw-dropping 64 percent.

Finally, despite claims that they used “an industry-leading Pipeline Integrity Testing program” that made Mesa “among North America’s most efficient and reliable water systems,” the district experienced nine water main breaks or leaks in a 48-hour period at the end of August, right on the heels of the board’s vote on the proposed rate increase.

The Board of Directors of Costa Mesa Sanitary District has stated repeatedly that we are 100 percent committed to efficiencies to be realized via shared services and welcome a thorough, balanced and impartial analysis of all potential consolidation scenarios, as conducted by the Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency charged with conducting such analyses. We are confident that via this approach, our customers won’t be subjected to legerdemain, skullduggery, hocus pocus, aces up the sleeve or other sleight of hand.

Mike Scheafer is president of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District Board of Directors.


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