By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
Jones Valley, Calif. – In 2013, John Van den Bergh, who was then the Fall River Valley Community Services District general manager, got a call from a California congressman who was both discouraged and hopeful about a seemingly insoluble problem in his district.
For years, the small, rural Jones Valley community struggled with its water system. With less than 1,000 residents living on just 3,000 acres in rural Shasta County, the town had infrastructure, but it was aging and costly to maintain and improve. County officials who oversee the system’s operations had presented rate increases to Jones Valley residents that would fund maintenance and infrastructure improvements, but its Community Advisory Board members were skeptical. There was an impasse, Congressman Doug LaMalfa told Van den Bergh, and clearly, something had to be done. He thought Van den Bergh could help.
“The community’s rates at the time were way lower than what was needed to maintain the system.” ~Troy Bartolomei
“He asked me to meet with the Community Advisory Board members,” Van den Bergh recalls. “The community felt that the county was not treating them right. In fact, both parties were barely talking to each other, and the tension between them was unbearable.”
Though Van den Bergh was familiar with the region and understood and sympathized with the problem, he couldn’t be of much help at the time. His job at the Fall River Valley Community Services District—less than 100 miles from Jones Valley—left him with very little time to assist other community water systems.
But in 2016, Van den Bergh left his job and joined Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) as a rural development specialist. At RCAC he conducts water rate studies and assists districts as they try to comply with California’s Proposition 218. In this capacity, it occurred to him that he could help Jones Valley and Shasta County officials who, by 2017, had still not resolved their differences.
Meanwhile, Shasta County Public Works had completed two rate studies that pointed to the need for Jones Valley residents to pay more for their water service.
“The community’s rates at the time were way lower than what was needed to maintain the system,” explains Troy Bartolomei, Shasta’s deputy director of public works. “Older filters needed to be rehabilitated, and pumps were wearing out. The system was originally installed in the early 1980s, and time took its toll. It’s like asking when you should fix your roof. Not when it’s already leaking.”
It wasn’t that Jones Valley residents were unaware that their water system was in trouble.
Roy Vincent, who chairs the Jones Valley Community Advisory Board, regularly attended Local Agency Formation Commission meetings to better understand the community’s options. He also attended and spoke at meetings that the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, Shasta County Department of Public Works and California’s State Board of Water Resources held. By his account, starting in 2013, he had invested nearly 3,000 hours on the issue, and his fellow residents had also dedicated much time to understanding their water system’s problems. Vincent also met with Van den Bergh in 2014 and expressed his concerns.
“I was frustrated with broken meters and leaks,” Vincent says. “There were electrical problems that burned out two of our three suction pumps on Lake Shasta, and filter systems that were 15 years past their service life.”
But from his viewpoint, the county was responsible for the system’s failures.
The county had conducted two rate studies in recent years, but Jones Valley residents rejected both. In response, the county fined the residents thousands of dollars and threatened jail time if they used more water than the absolute minimum (225 gallons per day.)
“We felt the county should not be fining us,” Vincent says.
At issue was Proposition 218, which California voters passed in 1996 and which added a constitutional voter approval requirement for all local government taxes. An additional provision to the new law expanded local initiative voting power, whereby residents could reduce or repeal any local government tax, assessment, fee or charge.
Although Vincent and other Jones Valley residents believed that they were well within their right to protest a rate increase, he also acknowledges, “I understand that the county felt we weren’t paying our fair share.”
But the two parties still couldn’t find a way to move beyond their differences, which prompted Congressman LaMalfa to contact Van den Bergh again. Vincent also had asked Van den Bergh if he could intervene and conduct an independent rate study. The county rejected the idea, until Mey Bunte of the State Water Resources Control Board convinced Shasta water officials to let Van den Bergh proceed with the rate assessment.
Van den Bergh meanwhile recognized that RCAC actually had several tools it could use to assist Jones Valley, including conducting a median household income (MHI) survey, which ultimately demonstrated that the community is severely disadvantaged and was therefore eligible to apply for certain loans and grants. RCAC then began organizing periodic meetings with county officials and Jones Valley residents.
“So we saw that in fact, the county wasn’t charging us what it really did cost to run the system,” Vincent explains.
Van den Bergh’s colleague, rural development specialist Bridget Harris, who focuses on financials, served as his right hand.
“She unraveled the Jones Valley budget and then later stitched it back together with the rate model,” he says.
Their colleague rural development specialist Omar Al-Shafie analyzed the data in terms of what Jones Valley should have in capital reserves for its water system’s ongoing maintenance.
“We were able to see what actually makes up our water system,” Vincent says. “Tanks, valves, booster pumps. We learned about the replacement value—we were essentially told how much money is needed to maintain a system to how to prepare for future improvements. There was a lot of back-and-forth. We met with a county auditor, too, who explained that he is mandated by law to oversee that this money is spent correctly. This convinced me to tell John that yes, we would agree to this rate increase.”
Negotiations continued for two years, with Van den Bergh steadily helping the two parties develop trust and understanding. And the hard work paid off: In December 2018, both county officials and Jones Valley residents agreed on a substantial rate increase, which requires that 95 percent of residents will see their water bill rise by 77 percent over the next five years. The other 5 percent of customers will see their rate increase 34 percent to 116 percent, depending on their meter size.
“RCAC provides this very simple, easy-to-understand model. You see the money coming in and you see where it goes out.” ~Roy Vincent
Aside from the increase being substantial, the agreement is also remarkable. The two previous proposed water rate increases were comparatively modest, but Jones Valley residents rejected them based on their mistrust of the county.
“RCAC provides this very simple, easy-to-understand model,” Vincent says. “You see the money coming in and you see where it goes out.”
And on that point, Bartolomei can only agree.
“This is John’s strong point,” Bartolomei says. “His personality, his demeanor, his quiet confidence, and his good rapport with the residents let them know that he was capable and that this was legitimate and fair. He—and RCAC—were really instrumental and we already look forward to having him help other communities in Shasta County.”