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THE CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / A VOTERS' HANDBOOK: DECISION
'98 | WATER DISTRICT

Las Virgenes Candidates Spar Over Price, Development

November 01, 1998|SUE FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To hear their supporters tell it, a slate of challengers seeking three seats on the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District board are riding to the rescue of customers tired of paying too much for their water.

But over in the incumbents' camp, these white knights look more like a Trojan horse. They say the group backing the challengers in Tuesday's race, Citizens for Lower Water Rates, is a front for developers trying to take over the five-member water board.

At the center of the finger pointing and numbers crunching is Brian Boudreau, a man who is not even on the ballot. Boudreau, a Calabasas horse-farm owner who says he is fighting for high quality water at low prices, helped assemble the opposition slate of candidates this summer. Critics accuse him of having his own pro-development agenda.

"I'm the closest thing to a developer [in the group], and I built three houses in 20 years," Boudreau said. The real reason board members are tarring him with the "developer" label, he said, is "because they can't run on their record."

The group Boudreau helped found is now backing Dana Levy, a real estate broker; Vernon Padgett, a retired doctor who helped lead a recall effort against two board members in 1996; and Thomas Paskell, a retired Air Force colonel. Levy is challenging incumbent Glen Peterson in Division 2. Padgett is up against board President Harold "Hal" Helsley in Division 3. Paskell is vying against incumbent Ann Dorgelo for the Division 5 seat.

Critics of the water district and its three veteran board members up for reelection have found plenty to complain about. First and foremost are the water rates--a topic that has generated a flurry of numbers thrown back and forth.

"No one understands why they're having to pay this much for water," said Diane Eaton, a former water district employee who is now a leader of the citizens' group.

According to two studies cited by the water district, which serves 65,000 customers in the West Valley, the Las Virgenes rates are nothing out of the ordinary. When compared with other regions, said Norm Buehring, the agency's director of resources conservation, "in general, the district is in the middle."

The billing system is complicated, however, with rates depending upon where customers live and how much water they use. One of the studies, a 1997 survey by the engineering firm Black & Veatch, showed that out of 51 areas in the county, the Las Virgenes district had a lower base rate than 28 others.

"We pay below the average rates for SAFE WATER!" one of Helsley's campaign ads trumpeted, citing this study as proof. But the citizens' group says the study was based on water usage that is well below the average--and as usage climbs, so do the rates. The water district has angered some residents by enacting a land-parcel charge, raising connection fees for new homes and repeatedly increasing water rates over the past decade. It also built large facilities it could not afford, critics say. At the top of the list are a $43-million composting plant built in 1994 and an $8-million headquarters built in 1996. The district now has $56 million in outstanding debt.

"They are spending a lot of money, much of which is not even related to the service of water and sewers," Padgett said.

Helsley defended the district's spending: "If you build just for today and don't look to the future, you shortchange yourself."

The citizens' group had raised more than $18,400 for the election as of Oct. 17, Boudreau said, and thousands more since--a large amount for such a race. The group's slick color brochures have also fueled warnings of a "big-money" takeover.

"You don't have to look very far," said Peterson, the Division 2 incumbent. "I mean, Brian Boudreau is a developer, and he could gain very much if he can get control of the board."

The incumbents point to about 700 acres of open space the water district and other agencies bought last year near the district's property on Las Virgenes Road. The land is for a buffer zone adjacent to the district's composting plant, Helsley said.

But Boudreau opposed this deal, incumbents say, because it meant the land could not be developed. The argument goes, he could have saved money on his plan to build luxury homes in nearby Stokes Canyon by sharing infrastructure costs with a developer who could have built on the land the district bought.

Boudreau denied he would have gained anything from such a development, saying he opposed the district's role in acquiring the land "because that's not what the water users' money is collected for."

For their part, some of the challengers are fed up with the pro-development specter haunting their campaigns. "We're backed by citizens that are all users of water in the district," Levy said.

"I was in this long before Mr. Boudreau came into the picture," Padgett said, adding that his support base is a Calabasas homeowners association. "I'm for the people here, in this area."

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