Big trouble for little water - Tucson Local Media: Pima Pinal

Big trouble for little water

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Posted: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:02 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Seats for a majority of the board members of a small Avra Valley water utility are in jeopardy.

The Marana Domestic Water Improvement District, which serves about 850 customers just outside Marana’s boundaries, faces upheaval with the potential recall of three board members. Each side in the recall effort has pointed to financial concerns as a key component to the board’s infighting and strife.

County officials already have approved recall petitions for board members Luis Castaneda and Louis Preston, setting a new election for March. Meanwhile, district residents angered by the move have begun circulating a petition of their own to recall board Chairman Don Peetoom.

Castaneda and Preston say the other three board members are singling them out.

“They find it difficult to work with us because of my findings while chairman of the board,” Preston said.

Castaneda points to an audit conducted earlier this year by the district’s accountant as an indication of what troubles could come to the tiny water district. While the accountant said the district seems to spend its money wisely, its cash reserves likely will evaporate in the coming years.

“Each year without doing any kind of increase in your rates, your cash position is going to start falling by about $20,000 a year,” accountant Wesley Addison told the board in February. “At some point between now and six years you have to look at raising — either bringing on more service, selling more service, or increasing your rates. One of the two if you want to keep that reserve.”

In July, the board approved a $643,157 overall budget for the fiscal year.

“Myself and Mr. Preston have been instrumental in not raising the water rates, but tightening up the belt everywhere else in the budget, where we’ve knocked off almost $80,000,” Castaneda said, adding that reining in overtime and pay raises and looking into energy savings at well sites have helped such cuts.

A planned housing development at the district’s south end could add much-needed connections to the water utility, Castaneda suggested.

“It would be nice if we could get at least 100 hookups at least within the next year,” Castaneda said. “That would be enough to at least get us situated where we could at least plan the future.”

Vice chairwoman Theresa Ball-Cummings doesn’t believe the money situation is as dire as Casteneda and Preston make it out to be.

“As far as what I know, and the system manager and the lawyer and Wes Addison, no, there’s no financial problems and that’s coming from the truth,” Ball-Cummings said, adding that she believes Castaneda and Preston are raising the financial issue to make themselves look good because they are up for recall.

Recall elections in the small district are not a new thing.

On Nov. 4, 2003, all five board members at the time were the subject of a recall election, including current board members Don Peetoom and Lillian Payne. All five beat out write-in candidates to keep their seats.

The man behind the current two recall efforts, Foy Brown, worked part time for the district for three years, installing water meters and performing maintenance.

“Those two people’s mind doesn’t work too good,” Brown said of Castaneda and Preston.

He fingered the two board members as being the source of the district’s financial trouble.

“It never was before until those two started their crap,” Brown said. “The county board should take (the district) over right now.”

Sixty-seven signatures from district residents are required for the Pima County Division of Elections to move forward with a recall vote. Brown collected 81 signatures of folks wanting to recall Preston, and 79 to recall Castaneda, according to the county election officials.

The other three board members —Ball-Cummings, Peetoom and Payne — all signed the petitions to remove their two colleagues.

Meanwhile, Castaneda’s father is collecting signatures to recall Peetoom before the early October deadline. So far, his father has collected about 90 signatures, with a goal of reaching 250, the same number who voted for Peetoom, Castaneda said.

Peetoom didn’t know how the district plans on handling the issues raised by the recent audit, saying that the district’s manager Sigfrid Danielson is working on it. Peetoom declined to comment on any other issues dealing with the district.

While Brown is confident that voters will recall Castaneda and Preston, he worries that things might get worse if they remain on the board.

“The quality of the water is going to go down,” he said. “I’d hate to even think of it.”

In a letter to county election officials explaining why he wanted to recall Preston, Brown wrote, “he is pushing for a backhoe that both the system manager and field tech have stated would be useless for a company of our size.”

In his letter about Castaneda, Brown wrote, “He has demonstrated to me and the people of the district that he has self interest in mind and not the people of the district. He has caused decent (sic) within the board itself and with people employed by the district.”

The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved the formation of the Avra Valley district in 1998.

“The reason for district formation is that they were very unhappy with the service they were receiving from Marana,” according to Danielson.

Most of the area’s 5,000 residents live in houses or trailers on large, rural lots. The median household income for Avra Valley is just above $35,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Small water districts are not uncommon in the region. In the Tucson Active Management Area, a kind of water zone that stretches from the Mexican border into Pinal County, there are more than 140 water providers ranging from the large (Tucson Water) to the small (Winterhaven Water Co.).

Water utilities tend to fall into one of four categories: city, town, private or domestic water improvement districts.

The key difference among the types of utilities is who regulates them. In municipal districts, boards are overseen by a town council. Private companies are governed by the Arizona Corporation Commission. Domestic water improvement districts, like the one in Avra Valley, are governed by a district board.

In addition to the Marana Domestic Water Improvement District, there are two other water utilities of this type in the Tucson area, one in Green Valley and Metro Water, which serves an area between Marana and Oro Valley.

© 2014 Tucson Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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