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Ventura County

Need for Water District Disputed

Study: Hidden Valley entity is one of several in Ventura County coming under the scrutiny of LAFCO analysts.

November 30, 2001|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A state planning agency is recommending possible elimination of a water district in the exclusive Hidden Valley area near Thousand Oaks, saying the district does not produce or distribute water but has collected about $57,000 this year in property taxes and special surcharges.

The recommendation already has triggered a strong response from the water district, which says it plays a valuable emergency role in times of drought for Hidden Valley's wealthy farmers and celebrities.

Local Agency Formation Commission analysts, in a new study of 49 special districts in Ventura County, also recommend that the commission take a hard look at whether $1.1 million collected annually by the Camarillo Health Care District could be better spent elsewhere.

The report released Thursday also questions whether a sewage district in the Montalvo area of Ventura should be merged with the city, whether the large Calleguas water district should absorb several smaller water districts and whether a Fillmore-area cemetery district should merge with a failing cemetery district in Piru.

The study is set for consideration at a Dec. 12 meeting by the seven-member LAFCO board, which represents local cities, the county, special districts and the public. The meeting is the first step in a four-year process involving deeper analysis of the preliminary findings.

"These recommendations have been sent to each district, and some are very unhappy," said Everett Millais, the planning agency's executive director. "While initially it may stir up a hornet's nest, it is nothing more than a summary of information and issues identified for further analysis. It sets the stage for further analysis, and we encourage the districts to participate."

Special districts are local governmental agencies formed for a specific purpose, such as providing water, sewer, recreation or health care services. There are 30 independent special districts--those with elected boards--in the county. And there are 19 other dependent special districts, those created by city councils and the county Board of Supervisors.

The new study found that the Hidden Valley Water District provides little or no significant service.

"While being established as a water district, this district does not produce or serve any water," the report stated. "The stated purpose of the district is to plan on how the residents might receive water in cases of prolonged drought."

The Hidden Valley district has already responded in writing to LAFCO's recommendation that the commission consider dissolving the district or at least cut taxes to the amount the district spends each year for a part-time employee, about $12,000.

"It is not true that we do not provide services to our constituents in Hidden Valley," district board President Eric Mayer said in an interview. "We provide emergency water services and we have set up a fund in the event of a drought [where] we would provide water trucks and emergency water to the farms."

Hidden Valley, an enclave of wealthy businesspeople and movie stars, has about 35 ranches, Mayer said. The water district has represented their interests by accumulating a drought fund of about $330,000 and by recently studying issues such as importation of treated waste water into the valley to replenish ground water supplies, he said. That would cost about $1 million for the delivery system alone, according to district lawyers.

The water district was set up in 1960 to head off annexation to the Calleguas water district, which ranchers feared would lead to large-scale development.

"It's not a frivolous endeavor," said Mayer, a horse rancher, oat and fruit farmer and advisor to pension funds. "It's a beautiful valley and we would like to keep it that way. The need for a water district is still there."

Mayer noted that three LAFCO studies of similar issues since 1972 have found the Hidden Valley district to be viable. And a district lawyer said in a letter to LAFCO that regardless of the planning agency's action, voters in the tiny district would never approve its dissolution. Under state law voters have the final say.

Camarillo Health Care District Reviewed

In a second recommendation sure to draw fire, LAFCO staffers urged a careful review of the Camarillo Health Care District to determine whether it duplicates services provided by county health agencies, and if the $1.1 million in property tax the district collects could be better used by the county.

If the Camarillo district's services are found to be unique and valuable, the district might be enlarged to stretch services without increasing the taxes collected, the report said.

The Camarillo health district was formed in 1969 to build and operate Pleasant Valley Hospital, which was merged with private St. John's Medical Center in 1993. The district has been restructured and continues to provide health services, especially for senior citizens.

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