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Levy but No Water : Pauma Valley Woman Defies Fee Rise on Service She Doesn’t Use

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary P. Austin, an artist who owns 450 acres in Pauma Valley, near the base of Palomar Mountain, tolerates bureaucracy about as well as her oils mix with water.

And maybe that’s why Austin, a 71-year-old widow, was aghast when she got her tax bill last November that, among other things, included a $5,862 levy against her as a “water availability” fee. That fee alone virtually quadrupled her annual property tax bill, stunning the woman who lives on a fixed, Social Security income supplemented only by an occasional sale of her art works.

“I was fit to be tied,” said Austin. “I had been paying taxes of less than $2,000 a year, and suddenly I’m hit with a tax bill of almost $8,000. I was astonished.”

The increase reflected a change in state law last year that allowed the County Water Authority (CWA) to assess everyone in San Diego County $10 per acre--or parcel, whichever was greater--to help pay for capital improvements to its piped water delivery system. The CWA, which sells imported water to the county’s local water districts, charged Austin $4,575 as her share for helping to maintain and expand the system. Countywide, the CWA fee was expected to generate about $10 million a year.

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Austin’s local Yuima Water District, empowered with the same state law, assessed its own fee, based on a sliding scale of how much property one owns in the Pauma Valley. In Austin’s case, the bill came to $1,287.

Austin was infuriated, though, because she has no use--and says she never will--for piped city water. She has lived on the property that fronts California 76 since 1940--when her father bought it for her and her husband--and had never needed more than well water to meet her personal, domestic needs. She never planted the acreage in groves or orchards so additional water wasn’t needed for agriculture.

The woman, a self-described cynic about government, let loose a flurry of letters and phone calls to protest the water bill. “I called the county 50 times, and every time they gave me another number to call, or told me that someone would get back to me,” she said.

Austin finally got in contact with Shirley Jackson, the assistant general manager of the County Water Authority. “At first she said there was nothing she could do about it, that she had no recourse.”

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But Austin, who describes her art as “figurative Expressionist,” found another way to express herself, figuratively speaking. She called state Assemblyman Robert Frazee (R-Carlsbad)--who not only represents her district but authored the very legislation that let the CWA do what it did to her.

“The idea of the fee is to allow water districts to accumulate a fund for future maintenance and repairs, and also to assess people who are not using any water but still benefit by the increased value of their land because it’s served by the district, if they should want the water,” Frazee said.

But the assemblyman quickly saw the problem with Austin’s situation. “The CWA hasn’t had experience in imposing fees like this, and they instructed the county assessor to send out bills to everyone who owned a parcel,” even if they didn’t use city water and had no plans to do so.

Frazee got several complaining phone calls, including Austin’s.

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“I went back to the CWA and said, ‘Hey, folks, we’ve got to do something about this.’ ”

Now, with a state assemblyman on her side, Austin saw some light at the end of the tunnel. CWA staff workers began studying options to get the woman off the hook. Austin paid the first half of her annual tax bill in December--including the amount she protested--hoping that eventually it would be refunded to her.

Come January, the problem still hadn’t been resolved. February. March. April--and the second half of her property tax installment was due.

She didn’t pay it, exposing herself to a 10% penalty from the county tax collector.

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“I got a call from Shirley Jackson the day before (April 10, the tax due date) and she said they were moving forward with the change in the policy with due diligence. I’m not sure if it was diligence, but it was certainly due,” Austin offered.

The CWA staff was, in the meantime, discussing how to write a new policy that would excuse people like Austin from paying the water availability charge. Indeed, about a dozen people, in situations like Austin’s, called the CWA to complain that they shouldn’t pay the bill either, Jackson said.

“Since they weren’t using the water and said they have no intention of using it, we began to look for some relief for them,” Jackson said.

Finally, a draft proposal was prepared by the lawyers: If a property owner can make a case to the CWA board of directors that he doesn’t use--and has no intention of using--piped city water via the CWA, he won’t have to pay the “water availability” benefit fee.

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But, if the land ever is developed and commercial water is needed, the owner will have to pay the fee--retroactive to last July 1, when the law went into effect.

The CWA board of directors is expected to adopt the deferred-payment policy when it meets May 17.

The Yuima Water District’s board of directors are considering a similar tack so that Austin will be relieved of that district’s smaller water bill as well.

Jackson said the staff is also going to ask the CWA board of directors to pay Austin’s 10% tax penalty, since it was the CWA fee that caused Austin not to pay her entire tax bill by the April 10 deadline.

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But Philip Jacobsen, the chief deputy tax collector, said that, if the CWA amends the tax bill downward, Austin will not be charged the 10% penalty as long as she pays the revised bill within 30 days. And the amount she already paid to the CWA last December will be credited towards her overall second-half tax bill, he said, with any overpayment refunded.

Austin hopes the problem is being resolved, but isn’t exactly holding her breath. “They say that’s what they’re going to do, but they keep putting it off, and it seemed like I was getting stonewalled,” she said. “So I’ll just wait and see. But I know one thing: I’m not going to pay the water fee.”

In the meantime, some of Austin’s 450 acres--mostly chaparral and meadowland, but with a generous sprinkling of live oak, sycamore and eucalyptus--is up for sale.

But not just to anybody.

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“I want the county, state or federal government to buy it for a wilderness preserve,” she said. “I value this land for its aesthetics, and I want it protected.

“I’m seeing fewer raccoons and red foxes and badgers than I used to,” she said, “but I’m still getting the wildcats coming down from the upper reaches. And I don’t want this land developed.

“Developers already have gotten to Temecula and Rancho Bernardo, and they’ll be after us presently. All the wildlife is retreating,” she said.

If she can’t sell any of the property to a government agency, she’ll simply hang on to it.

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“And as long as I do,” she says, “I’ve got all the well water I need.”


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