Imperial County Grand Jury issues recommendations, awaits responses
Mario Pineda uses a hose to clean algae May 23 at the El Centro water treatment plant. (JOSELITO VILLERO FILE PHOTO / July 9, 2013)
The grand jury is tasked with investigating city and county government operations as well as tax-supported agencies and districts.
The jury investigated 10 entities this year, which included the county’s two state prisons, as well as the jail and juvenile hall. The Heber Public Utility District, county airport as well as the Salton Community Services District was also investigated. Operations for the water and wastewater departments for the cities of El Centro and Imperial, and the Niland Fire District were also reviewed.
The 19-member jury released its report June 28. Aside from the two prisons and the HPUD, all of entities that were reviewed by the jury have 90 days to furnish a written response to its recommendations.
The grand jury also had requested responses from agencies that appeared in last year’s report but that had failed to provide a response.
Access to public records and government transparency were additional concerns of the jury, with some of the investigated agencies credited as being more open and accessible to the public than others.
“The report speaks for itself,” jury foreman Lee Buckingham said.
Given the “reasonable amount of time” the agencies were given to provide documentation and information, Buckingham said some entities were slower to respond than others.
Rising water, wastewater rates a concern of Imperial County Grand Jury
The cities of El Centro and Imperial are being urged to negotiate with the Imperial Irrigation District for reduced water rates, according to the 2012-2013 Imperial County Grand Jury report.
The grand jury recommends that both cities attempt to negotiate water rates that more closely reflect the price charged farmers. Local municipalities purchase IID water at the standard municipal rate of $68 per acre-foot, while agricultural customers pay $20 per acre-foot for the same untreated water.
The recommendation stems from public concern following water rate increases recently implemented in both El Centro and Imperial. The recommendations are just two of several issued to both respective cities regarding financial management and public works operations.
The IID water rate is based on a 2009 study and subsequently approved by the IID board. The rate hike was controversial at the time, but failed to muster the number of public protest votes needed in order to block it. Only those who order water directly from the district — such as growers — were allowed to vote, while households in cities throughout the county were not.
“This one single fact shows that the power of a minority within the Valley, control the rates over the majority,” the report stated. “This is a situation that needs to be rectified and brought to the public’s attention.”
Under a plan adopted by El Centro, rates are slated to increase over the next five years by an average of 4.4 percent for water rates and 5.8 percent for sewer rates, for a total of 24.3 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Previous rates hikes from 2006 to 2009 saw rates rise 36 percent and 72 percent for water and sewer services, respectively, the report noted.
The report also found fault with the manner in which the average household cost due to the water rate increase was presented. The city’s Finance Department initially reported an average monthly increase of $4.36 for a household that uses about 13,000 gallons a month, for a total of $111.24. A grand jury committee’s subsequent analysis found the average household uses about 17,111 gallons a month and could expect a monthly bill closer to $124.85.
The possibility of negotiating lower IID water rates is something city officials have attempted in the past, El Centro Mayor Ben Solomon said.
He also stood by the city’s estimates about the average monthly ratepayer increases.
“Once (the grand jury) hears our rationale,” Solomon said, “they’ll be comfortable with it.”