Archive » September 23, 2010
By Isaiah Brookshire, Staff Writer
Second round of Q&A with candidates
Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District One candidates Lee Bettencourt and Larry Musgrove answer questions from the Valley Journal in the second part of a three-week special feature on the race for three seats on the districtís board. Both men are hoping to be elected to the districts third division.
Bettencourt will be running for his fourth term on the board. He joined the board mid-term in 2000 and has served for 10 years. Bettencourt represents the board at regional meetings dealing with the operation of the Cachuma Project and fishery restoration projects. He said he is ďgreedy for waterĒ and thinks that tensions between the South Coast and the district are largely due to the southís quest for more water.
Musgrove has served on various boards, including the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, the Meadowlark Mutual Water Company and both the state, and national boards of the pest control industry. He thinks that much can be done to build the districtís relationship with other agencies and the public.
The candidates disagree over the districtís primary function. Musgrove said that the district should look after the system first and worry about politics second. He said customer service is his top priority. Bettencourt challenged that concept and said without continual political vigilance, there would be no water with which to fill the system.
The candidates agree that they want to interact with customers and both said environmental issues should be handled in a responsible way. Their full answers on a range of topics are below.
Lee Bettencourt fights to keep water here
What have you learned from your 10 years of service on the board?There are so many details that are involved with the water district that are based on water agreements, MOUs, JPAs between many agencies Ė including Solvang, Santa Barbara, the district, and until you have a grasp on those and what they mean, you are behind the learning curve. This doesnít happen quickly. One of the things that helped me was coming on the board with four other board members who had been on the board. So my first two years were just learning the ropes and finding out what agreements there are that the district has to comply to on the federal level, on the state level, on the local level and with our neighbors. So, there is a lot of history and a lot of work to do. You canít just step in there and say ĎWell, are our books balanced?í There are a lot of things that are necessary to do ahead of time. Being on the board for 10 years has certainly helped me to understand more today.
What do you hope to accomplish if elected to another term?I think one of the upcoming things is, we are in the process of doing a new rates study. We have an independent firm studying our rates. This was done 15 years ago, and that rate study has been almost spot-on for the last 15 years. We are in a district that is solvent and we are in a district that doesnít have the lowest but also not the highest rates, based on a rate study that has worked. We have been very successful with the rate study we have done, and we hope we will be successful with this one. However, this is just a study and we review it every year. And question whether we should stay with the rate study or not. I foresee using this new rate study for the next 15 years to establish our rates. We have a good project replacing valves that are 40-50 years old, and I want to see that ongoing to keep our existing water system in good stead. We have 8 or 9 million dollars in reserves to repair if something does occur. We are continuing with a meter reading program. We are changing our meters to auto-read meters which has cut the cost of reading in the field, it has also cut the cost of our billing and that will keep our water rates better. Weíve also found that some of the meters that weíve replaced were not as accurate as we thought they should be, so we are actually charging for all the water that is being used instead of just a portion of it. It didnít make a huge difference to any one of our customers, but overall it makes a difference at the end of the year.
What makes you a strong candidate?I have a history with water. I am a lifelong resident of the Valley, my mother was born here in this Valley, and my grandfather came here in 1921 and bought a ranch based on water rights. My father was associated with this water board for many years, so I kind of have the water bug by osmosis. Iím a farmer, so water is very important to me. I want to preserve ID1 as a source of water. I donít know that Larry has any faults in these things, but it is going to take him awhile to come up to speed on some of these issues. Iím already at speed. Iíve heard that he wants to make a blanket change, and Iím not sure that this organization needs a blanket change. I havenít heard that from any of our rate payers yet. Maybe this election will tell us differently, but I believe that our rate payers our satisfied and happy. Otherwise, they would be pounding on our front door Ė and they are not.
Are your customers unfairly forced to choose meter sizes they donít want?Thatís real simple. Our rules that have been established by the district over the years describe, based on your acre size or usage, what size meter you should have. This is just a rule. You can walk into the water district and they can tell you exactly what size you will get, based on land size and usage. Itís the same for everybody. A lot of this is based on the water safety code and not just based on our whim and it has been prescribed for many years in this district.
If elected to a second term, how would you protect water rights in the Valley?Thatís probably the most important thing I do on the board. Iíve been told by many people, and Iíll say it again, that I am greedy about water and I want to keep all the water we can here in this valley. Iím very proud that we have built up land wells this past year from FEMA money amounting to about $5.2 million to elevate the water supply of this valley without losing the 4-cubic-feet-pre-second well field that those wells replaced. Solvang is in the process of perfecting a license in the river that is a water source that belongs to all of us Ė I believe Ė and should be sought after. Thatís why ID1 is down there trying to help Solvang with whatever we can do. One of the things we see coming down the pipe is the state water board is going to come out with an EIR (environmental impact report) about the Cachuma Project and fish releases. We want to make sure that those fish releases donít come from project water, that they come from reserve water or stored water. If it does come from project, it comes from water that goes outside the area, not the water that is developed here. If it means the South Coast loses some of their capacity, so be it. The water is from this area and should stay here. Water that is lost should be water from outside this area. Iíll fight to keep the water here and keep this source alive.
How do you handle the South Coastís opposition to more Solvang wells?This has been one of the problems that has gone on for a long time. Solvang, the district, Lompoc, Buellton, they all have right to first water in this area, I believe. The South Coast is secondary. That dam (Bradbury) was built to add a water supply to here and there. To preserve that, the Valley shouldnít be penalized because it is the area of origin. They wouldnít want us down there, meddling in their water wells. Why are they up here meddling in ours? This is the whole thing about water rights; water rights are very important and we need to keep our water.
How do you balance caring for the environment and providing water to customers?I believe itís right that you try to preserve the steel-head if we can. But one of my problems is how you accomplish this, not that we should. I think theyíve (COMB/CCRB) spent a lot of money, to accommodate fish that havenít really show huge results. I think that this is going to be a bigger problem and cause bigger issues. I think we are going to lose project water to keep fish in good condition. One of the problems we have is the nature of the river is not that conducive for fish. One of the things Iím going to start campaigning for is a steel-head hatchery on the river. This mitigates the passage of steel-head; if we can raise steel-head to turn loose downstream under the right conditions to add to the steal-head population. I think a steel-head hatchery along this river is viable, I think itís necessary, and I think it will mitigate a lot of the problems with the steel-head. This will minimize the releases to just a standard downstream release we have now. And we wonít have to maintain the high flow of water for the fish. Because we will add to the river at the appropriate time to move the fish to the ocean.
How do you balance the demand for water from urban and agricultural customers?Residential is priority. All agricultural water Ė if you are going to pay the lower rate Ė is interruptible. If there is an emergency situation, agriculture is turned off. We have never rationed water with agriculture but we have scheduled water. Amongst the agriculture users themselves, they have worked out ways to use just enough to water crops until problems can be fixed. None of this is adversely done; itís all done in cooperation. There is a different rate for agriculture use and domestic use. The reason for that is people here want to have agriculture, but if you donít give the agricultural rate, you wonít have agricultural property.
Do you think the district is too focused on politics and water rights, while letting system management fall to the wayside?Itís pretty simple, if you donít have water, there is no system to run. You need to maintain your water rights so you have a viable system. That doesnít mean our system is not looked after. As I said, we have a valve program, we have a meter program, we have pipe replacement programs, we continue to build loops so we have better water quality, we upsize pipe from a smaller to a larger capacity, and itís done in many different areas here in the Valley. Water rights are an important part of it, but we donít neglect the operations of the district. The operations of the district is only part of the water bill, the water is only one part of the water bill Ė and itís a small part Ė the bigger part is the meter itself, the installation of it, facility charge. Itís what keeps the facility going. When there is a new customer, there is a large meter charge because youíre buying into the 40 or 50 years of the past of the rest of the rate payers who paid for that system. Every month, there is a facility charge in the way of a meter charge. Domestic pays a lot less, agriculture pays up over $500 a meter because thatís what it costs to maintain that pipeline. We do maintain the pipe line, thatís why we have our reserves, to keep these pipelines up-to-date and for studies to show where we need to update the system. Eight years ago, we built a huge new reservoir up in Los Olivos; weíre looking at the possibilities of adding another reservoir, to have better water and better pressure.
Who should take care of fish issues if CCRB (the organization currently doing it) falls apart at the end of the year?CCRB and ID1 are obligated to mitigate fish in the river by the Bureau of Reclamation. If we donít do it, the bureau will do it and bill us for it. We think we did it cheaper than if it had a 30-40 percent bureaucratic tack on top of it. I would like to see ID1 do it. But I would like to see it done with the cooperation of the South Coast, instead of it going to the bureau. CCRB was a pretty good outfit, it ran pretty good, but it got convoluted because of management Ė because the manager for CCRB and the manager for COMB became the same. I think that caused a lot of the rift and problems between the agencies. If we were back to a fish only agency, which I think ID1 could do at a better rate, or if there is a South Coast agency ID1 will participate.
There is a perception that there is a rift between ID1 and other agencies. Is that accurate and if it is, is that bad?Iíve heard that criticism before, and most of the criticism we have is from opponents we have beaten. Solvang is one of them; they have a bitter pill in their mouth because of a lawsuit that happened many years ago over state water. I think that Jeff and I have tried to mend a lot of fences with Solvang and show Solvang that we are not the bad guy. As far as the South Coast, they donít like ID1 because we donít let them have our water. This is where the water came from; this is where the water should stay. Do they have the right to some of the water, yes, but they donít have a right to all of it. I think that we are held in high regard by many other agencies as peers. We worked long and hard to resolve issues with LAFCO, we had a bill in front of the state that ultimately was vetoed by the Governor because he was mad at the legislator because they didnít pass the budget. We were trying to resolve the issues with LAFCO. We were willing then, we are willing now to be under the jurisdiction of LAFCO, but unfortunately it is not official. I donít hear from our rate payers that they disagree with this. The rate payers are who I answer to, and they are who I try to represent. My name is in the phone book and you can talk to me anytime you want. There is no hidden agenda here. We are solvent, we have good reserves, we have good quality people who are paid a fair wage and we have water rights. I think this district is above most, when you start comparing it to others in the county.
What unique skills to you bring to the board?Iíve spent all my life in farming and engineering. I was born here, so Iíve seen the issues with farming and water all my life. I know the water issues pretty well. Iím self-taught and I rely on the good information of our top personnel. I can be a vocal and assuaging force on the board. I try not to do it adversely. We do disagree, but at the end of the day we will have a resolution that we all agree is best for our constituents. I consider this my water district; this is what I would want to do to succeed.
What are you most proud of?One is that I testified in front of the State Water Board to secure the water rights for this district. We built new upland wells with funds that were supplied by FEMA. We have mended the relationships with Solvang. We added a new meter program so the accounting is more accurate and faster. We have online billing, which we didnít have.
Do your customers complain that the board isnít open enough with information?No, because no one calls me; if you donít ask me, I canít tell you. If I want to get information, I call up and ask. If I donít call and ask, how would you know that Iím not happy? Call me either way; I donít care if there are complaints. I feel we are very approachable and very open. I donít expect our staff to write a book about everything we are going to talk about at a meeting. If you are interested in that, come listen like the rest of us. There is enough information on the agenda to know what we are going to talk about. Come to the meeting; we would be glad to hear you. We listen to everyone who comes. If you have questions, call me. I would be glad to assist you, but I canít read your mind.
Would you like to add anything?I would like to ask our customers to be interactive so we can know if they are happy or not. If there is anything bad, come forward and tell us. The grand jury said they were complacent. I donít think thatís true, I think they were happy and satisfied. They donít come forward when they are happy and satisfied. I would like them to say when they are doing a good job as well as when we are doing a bad job. Let us know and be forward.
Larry Musgrove seeks to mend fences
What made you decide to run?Iím retired now and Iíve always been a person whoís tried to give back to the community when there was a need. My friend and neighbor Mike Hadley asked me to run.
Why should people vote for you?I think changes is long overdue, Iím an independent thinker, Iím a business person, I know how to read finincial statements, I donít jump to conclusions, Iím my own person. Iíve always been my own person. It seems like from all that I can gather, there are more people upset with ID1 than not. If you ask people, it will run 10 to one, against ID1, maybe 15 to one. I only know one person that is for the board and he is a friend of one of the board members. Most people are not happy; theyíve had a bad experience.
What experience do you have in water management?When I lived out at Meadowlark Ranches, I decided to go to one of the board meetings for the mutual water company and I asked maybe three or four questions ó not a lot of people were asking questions ó and I left the meeting as the new president of the water company. It was quite a surprise for me because I was a newcomer and all of a sudden I have this responsibility. Long story short, I served seven years as the president. Being president of a water company was something I had never done before and I learned a lot.
What did you accomplish on the board?Unfortunately, when I started, they were not paying off their debt. They were using the cash flow to lower the water rates for themselves. We replaced them and took them off the board. I was able to pay off the debt that the water company had incurred over the years and put us into a positive cash flow. When Mike Hadley became the next water president out there, he got a water company that was debt free, it was quite an accomplishment.
How would your experience transfer to ID1?Whatís happening with this water company is you have the good old boys running the water company, and I think the main benefactors donít seem to be the customers, itís more toward the board members and the manager out there, he receives an ungodly amount of money for what he does.
What are the advantages of running on a slate?You wonít be roadblocked if you try to improve the district and its management. If you were elected alone it would be an uphill battle, and I donít think you would be very successful. There have been people who were elected alone, and I think they had a horrible time. It just doesnít work well.
How will you be individual even though you are running as part of a team?Iím not just a ďLetís go along with the majority,Ē kind of guy. Iím an independent thinker who looks at the facts and looks at what will be best for the customers of ID1. My background is in the service industry, the key thing about service is the customers and meeting their needs. And meeting their needs at a reasonable price. Iím not sure we have a reasonable price here in regards to meter charges and maybe in regards to water, too. A lot of these things really have to be exposed from the inside. It would be hard to make changes to ID1 if you donít have some sort of consensus.
What will your focus be if elected?Itís funny, but they spend more time on the politics than the operation of the system. If you go to a board meeting itís mostly about the politics of the day, Iím not so sure we need all those politics. Maybe we ought to try to be more of a mutual water company that is in-tune with our neighbors. Maybe some of the problems are caused by the current management and how they relate to other water services out there. If you come in as antagonistic and mean to other groups, the fur goes up and some of the best things donít happen. I know Solvangís experience with ID hasnít been the best in the world. The current relationship ó putting wells in the river ó is fragile. People are afraid of ID1 and the leadership of Solvang is leery. Our relationship with other water districts isnít that good; in fact itís probably awful in some cases. Maybe Iím a fundamentalist, but I think you should spend more time on the customers and improving the overall management of the services. The politics are important, but they should be secondary to the service. The first obligation you have is to your customers and providing them with an adequate water supply, excellent service at a reasonable cost. They charge an awful lot, when you pay for your water; youíre not just paying for water you have to pay for your meter. The meter charges can be very heavy and they donít give the customer much choice in choosing the size of their water meter. Thatís something the customer should be able to ask for a certain size of meter to meet their needs.
Whatís wrong with ID1?Number one, I think itís there customer service. The primary reason we have a water company is to have customer service. I donít think people are happy. The office is closed from 12 to one, so people canít pay their bill on their lunch hour. I think a solution would be to split the office staff instead of closing that office dead-tight at the primary time people would want assistance at the counter. ID1 seems to be serving the board members more than the customers. Another problem is management, itís a (Chris) Dahlstrom show and the board members donít have much to say.
Would you look for a new general manager?Being an optimist, I would like to start with Mr. Dahlstrom and see how things work out. Heís got history on his side. Hopefully there might be some joining of efforts between the manager and the team. He would have a little different environment if the team gets elected.
When you look at attorney fees Ė given that some of that fee is reimbursed Ė do you believe they are too high?I believe they are too high; it is hard to imagine that you put out $600,000 a year in legal fees to operate the water system. I donít think they go anywhere without an attorney, even a regional water meeting, theyíll take an attorney with them, which I donít understand. What drives this, whatís the concern? There are times when any business needs legal advice and legal council, it would seem that most things that are discussed and decided arenít major things where you need an attorneyís opinions. To have this ongoing legal counsel seems a little bit ridiculous.
What would you do to reduce the fees?I would use the service there was a real need for it. When there was something that was a real sensitive matter that was beyond our scope as board members. When I was on the national board of the Pest Control Association we used to have an attorney who would come to every meeting. The meter is running and sometimes the meetings would go, two, maybe three days and we would get this huge bill. I asked, ďWhy do we have an attorney here, why donít we have them in when we have a legal question?Ē I think the same holds true for the water district. When you have something sensitive, then you call in legal counsel. But you shouldnít need an attorney for every board meeting; it seems overkill. The people who pay for this are the customers; itís part of their cost of operations that they have to pay out of their pocket. The ones that are making out best in this thing are the attorneys.
Do you see evidence of good financial management on the board?They have statements up to three-quarters of the year, the final annual statement is never reviewed by the board, and they just approve it. They donít go over it, they donít discuss it, and itís almost like a rubber-stamp approval. I have yet to see an annual statement. If you went as a customer to the annual financial meeting, I doubt you could get a copy of the financials. At most organizations Iíve belonged to, itís right out in the open. There is a give-and-take about line items; I donít think that happens here.
How will you prepare for this position?Iíve always been a really fast learner, and it will really help to have privileged information that we are not getting right now to better understand what is going on. One of the things that might be nice is to try to simplify the overall picture, not just for board members but also for customers. It seems hard to understand the operations of ID1 as a whole. I like to simplify things. Itís very complex, and Iím a good student and I will try to learn. Itís a new game for me and I will learn as fast as I can.
What is your experience with public agencies?I served on as the presented mutual water company, I was on a national board for the pest control industry, and I was the youngest state president ever for the Pest Control Operators of California, when I was 32 years old. I ran the state the association without an executive director but all the industry members came to my aid, and we had one of our best years ever. The national thing was a little harder. In the history of the national organization there have only been three presidents from California. I didnít win on the first go-round, but after three tries I got enough support and was elected president. I really enjoyed it. On the state board, I used to go to Sacramento and speak for bills and go to legislative days. It was a good thing; I used to get up on the podium and talk.
How does your business experience prepare you for the board?ID1 is basically a business and needs a lot more business attention. We need to run it as efficiently as possible. I guess I see the district more as a business opportunity that we can make better. I think with my business experience will help make it a more efficient operation, a more customer-oriented operation and a more open operation to people in general. Itís a pretty closed-off program over there. This says to me that itís not a customer-oriented operation.
How will you deal with the tension between the South Coast and Solvang?Honestly, Iím not coming in as a trained water-right candidate that knows all the ins and outs of water rights. I will have to be a good student to learn all the things I need to know. I will do that, I promise to do that. I have no false pretenses that the job is going to be easy. I will bring to the table fresh management. I also think you get a lot more done when you can cooperate with others instead of being adversarial. You canít learn about another person unless you are going to build relationships. We are not living in a huge area, we should be able to talk to each other and work out problems when it comes to water rights and usage. Iím not living in a fantasy world where everything is perfect. There will be times where you need to bring in legal counsel to help. Hopefully there will also be times where good can come of just building relationships in a respectful way with others. I donít think that is naive, I think that is realistic. When it comes to Solvang and the South Coast, if you are elected by the people of the Valley, your allegiance is to the people of the Valley. However, maybe there is room for negotiation or better understanding. We are not at-odds with the South Coast. The way it has been the relationship is not a kind one. Weíve built a relationship that doesnít have trust. Hopefully we can build better relationships, thatís the bottom line.
How do you balance domestic and agricultural demand?Throughout the history of California, agriculture has always had a little better cost factor and I donít see that being any different. I think what we are really looking at for both agriculture and residential use, is cost factors in general and can we come in and do a better job managing ID1 where the cost of operations can be reduced so this automatic rate increase of 6 percent doesnít happen every year. The program has been ongoing and itís not going to go away unless you get some new board members. The current board doesnít seem to think itís a bad thing.
What is your stance on the steel-head issue?I think it is important to preserve environmental things like aquatic life at sustainable levels, so we are not ruining the habitat. I think we can do it at the same time as releasing water downstream to recharge the aquifer. All the aquatic wildlife needs to be kept at a decent level. Itís just good common sense.
What do you think about expansion in the Valley?I think it needs to be carefully done. With the major goal of maintaining the rural environment. I know there is going to be some expansion, but it needs to be very restricted as far as changing what we have.
Current board members say now is not the time for on-the-job training. What do you think?I donít plan on taking several years; I plan on taking several months. If I canít do it in several months, I will be disappointed in my abilities. You canít do it without full disclosure and you canít get full disclosure from the outside.
How will you deal with the scrutiny and criticism that comes with being a board member?I think we will have to listen to people who have problems with ID1. If they are valid, we will need to do something about it. Iím not afraid to make changes. The hardest thing for a human is the hardest thing. But change can be very good and very constructive; it can bring an era of betterment. You wouldnít leave a bouquet of flowers in the same water for days. We have a situation here in the Valley where a lot of customers are not happy; there are a lot of little conflicts going on. I think change could be a good thing, I donít think we are he best we could be at ID1.
Candidates face off
Question to Bettencourt from Musgrove: Why is it that ID1 year after year has such high legal bills, and what percent is reimbursed by the South Coast?Best Best & Krieger represents ID1 and the South Coast along with Lompoc, Buellton and Solvang on an EIR before the State Board on fish issues. We pay the entire bill and we are only obligated to 10.31 percent of it, we are reimbursed for the rest. As for the rest of the legal fees, only a portion of your water bill goes to providing water, the rest goes to protecting water rights. Are the attorney fees too high? I donít believe so.
Question from Musgrove to Bettencourt: Iíve heard it said that some of this group thinks our accounting practices are shoddy and remedial. Why do you think that?At ID1, budgets are rubber-stamped with little or no discussion at the board meetings, and for the most part public comments about the budget are ignored. There is never a board final review of the yearís end financial performance of actual income and expense against that yearís ID1ís budget. Many of the ID1 capital improvement projects are not reviewed or selected by the board; and it appears that fewer projects each year that are planned and budgeted for get accomplished.
One of the highest expense items that should to be reviewed for cost savings is the boardís annual legal expense, which is now averaging approximately $600,000 dollars a year.