Farmers, homeowners and other water users sounded off Monday against a $10-a-lot levy that the Calleguas Municipal Water District wants to charge its customers in Ventura County.
"This is totally unfair. This is a crock," said Robert Purdum, one of about 80 people who attended a hearing in Thousand Oaks on the proposed levy. "Your plan smells like an arbitrary decision made by bureaucrats with houses in town."
Purdum said he would pay $2,680 on 268 acres he owns in the Happy Camp area near Moorpark, even though he has never been a Calleguas customer.
The charge, which would be placed on next year's property tax bills, would amount to $10 on every lot or acre of land within the Calleguas service area. Calleguas serves nearly 500,000 customers in Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Moorpark and Oxnard, and the unincorporated areas of Oak Park, Somis, Bell Canyon and Lake Sherwood.
Calleguas, which is the county's largest water wholesaler, said it needs the extra $2 million that the levy would raise to offset sharp state cuts in revenues. Calleguas General Manager Donald Kendall said the money would help pay for projects to "drought-proof" the county and protect it against interruptions in water deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, from which Calleguas buys all of its water.
Calleguas and the MWD are jointly funding a second water supply pipeline into the Calleguas district.
Kendall said the pipeline is essential because "our service area is vulnerable to earthquakes. Our service area is vulnerable to emergencies. Of the 27 member agencies of Metropolitan, we are the most vulnerable."
But some farmers contend the levy would unfairly hurt them because it would require those who do not use Calleguas water to pay the same $10-an-acre rate as Calleguas customers. Many farmers have drilled their own water wells at high cost.
For some with large land holdings, the extra tax will amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars for which they receive no direct benefits.
"Twenty-two years ago when I wanted water, it wasn't available. So I set up my own water system," said Harman Rasnow of Thousand Oaks. "I'm here to make a deal with you. I'm not going to bother you in the future if you don't bother me."
But Calleguas officials contend that all landowners within the service area will benefit because the availability of Calleguas water improves property values. Kendall cited the large amount of agricultural land sold at high prices for development.
But some farmers said they are restricted from developing their property. "It's not like you walk down to the county this week and say, 'Well, I'm going to develop my property now' and walk away with millions of dollars,' " said John Lamb, who would have to pay a charge for 1,000 acres. Lamb said most of his land is zoned for greenbelt or exclusively for agriculture and cannot be developed.
Calleguas sells its water through 21 public and private water retailers who deal directly with end users.
Some of those retailers have asked that Calleguas modify its tax proposal.
"There doesn't seem to be any legitimate rationale for levying the same standby charge for parcels already being served and those that are not, particularly in instances where large investments have been made to construct individual wells," said Reddy Pakala, manager of the Ventura County Water Works District 19, in a letter to Calleguas. The district serves the agricultural community of Somis.
Pakala recommended that Calleguas instead impose a five-acre maximum charge.
The Camrosa Water District of Camarillo has proposed levying differing charges based on a property's zoning.
The Calleguas board will meet next month to decide whether to impose the charge.
"This is not a done deal," Kendall said. He said taxpayers should send their complaints to California legislators who diverted $3.5 million in revenue from Calleguas to other state programs. "I'm angry. We're all angry," Kendall said. "We would like to focus that anger at Sacramento."