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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Those Wayward Districts

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As a simple matter of fairness, the directors of the Capistrano Beach Sanitary District made the right call in deciding not to bill homeowners for years of sewer bills that the district neglected to mail. But in the process, a bigger issue has arisen: Why should the district continue to exist in the face of such past incompetence?

Before district directors acted, they unfortunately caused a few months of worry for owners of 33 condominiums at the 58-unit Old Mill Pond complex in Dana Point. The complex was built in 1977, and 25 condo owners have been paying sewer bills to the district all along. But 33 owners assumed that sewer service was part of the $231 monthly dues paid by each owner.

It wasn’t until neighbors compared notes in June that the discrepancy was uncovered. The savings for those who had not been billed worked out to about $272 a year apiece. Their worry was that the district might try to make them cough up back payments for years.

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Last week, the directors of the financially solvent district wisely decided to bill everyone as of last July 1. But the incident calls into question the competence of a district that operated for years in blithe ignorance of thousands of dollars it was owed. The district serves only 4,000 customers in the Capistrano Beach area of Dana Point and is one of dozens of special districts in the county. The county grand jury noted in 1981 that special districts operated with little notice and less scrutiny, and rightly concluded that this was a formula for trouble.

Six years later, another grand jury repeated the same warning. And this year the Santa Margarita Water District came under investigation by the FBI and the county district attorney after disclosures of its free-spending ways.

The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission created the special districts and has talked about merging some of them. Here is another example of small districts run amok, and a reminder that the commission must work harder to merge as many as it can.

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