A proposed 37.5-percent rate increase has fanned the flames of an ongoing political fight between the board members of the Rim Trail Domestic Water Improvement District and a number of the 92 customers it serves.
And the fact that the proposal has arrived directly on the heels of a notice of violation issued to Rim Trail by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has exacerbated the situation.
"This isn't right," says Mack McElhiney, a resident of the tiny community off Houston Mesa Road between Whispering Pines and Washington Park. "This whole district has been a mess for a long time in many different ways, and the board won't tell us anything. There's a lot of us up here who aren't prepared to move ahead with the rate hike without knowing what's been going on."
If passed at the board's public meeting Sunday, the monthly minimum water rate would increase from $32 to $44 for the first 1,000 gallons of water used by each resident. Also on the board's agenda is discussion of a special pass-through of operation expenses of $100 per meter. If one or both receive a majority of yea votes from Rim Trail's three board members, they will go into effect May 1.
"We don't have anything to say to the media," said the board's chairman, Harry D. Jones, when asked about the proposed rate hike and violation notice that was issued late last month by ADEQ environmental engineering specialist Patrick Finton.
Following his March 2 visit to the Rim Trail plant, Finton cited the Rim Trail Domestic Water Improvement District for failing to maintain turbidity and chlorination meters. The turbidity meter monitors the suspended solids in the water, while the continuous chlorine meter measures the amount of residual chlorine in the water being distributed.
Failure to achieve compliance by May 1, the notice reads, "may result in ADEQ initiating a unilateral enforcement action. Achieving compliance does not preclude ADEQ from seeking administrative and/or civil penalties. Penalties may be imposed for each violation for the entire non-compliance period."
Finton's most recent compliance report, written April 3, further states that, "Based on data submitted by the water system, ADEQ cannot determine if this system is currently delivering water that meets water quality standards required by Arizona Administrative Code, Title 18, Chapter 4. This compliance status report does not guarantee the water quality for this system in the future."
ADEQ's notice of violation did not drop onto Rim Trail from out of the blue. The district was issued a compliance status request Sept. 22, 2000, noting that the district was out of compliance in a host of water-monitoring areas.
Finton inspected the facility's system on Oct. 11, 2000. His report indicated that while the system was in "generally good physical condition, there were numerous problems, the most serious being that "the seven-day chart recorder for turbidity and chlorine was not operating" a violation of two Arizona Administrative Codes.
When Finton visited the plant again March 2, almost five months later, the notice of violation says that he found the turbidity meter "was not operational and had not been operational for some time," and that the chlorine meter was "not operational."
The 55-year-old community, officially known as the Rim Trail Mountain Club, is made up of 139 lots, 90-some homes, and about 15 full-time residents.
The Rim Trail Domestic Water Improvement District, formed in 1980, is one of 1,500 special taxing districts in Arizona that are, for the most part, considered separate entities from the counties in which they were formed. The system draws surface water from the East Verde River and has three back-up groundwater wells, only one of which is operational.
Throughout the district's history, battle lines have been drawn between its board members and customers, resident Harriet King says.
"The rate increases are the result of the previous (district) administration neglecting the system for six or seven years, during which time it went from brand new to unfunctional," King says. "The current administration is just carrying on the tradition. Now we have the ADEQ breathing down our necks, with a fine looming on May 1."
The reason for the $100 per meter assessment fee, she thinks, is that "there is no money (in the district's coffers), and they have to install the chlorine and turbidity meters which is going to be between $7,000 and $8,000. So they have to get a fund together in order to buy these things."
These issues, and countless others having to do with the water district and its management, have divided the community with the grace of a guillotine, King says.
"We have the good ol' boys, and they are sticking together like glue no matter what ... and then we have the newer residents who can see what's going on, and they are very upset."
"Here's the problem," McElhiney says. "For two or three years now, we have been asking the water board to provide us with some kind of financial blueprint of what they've done for the past eight or nine years, and we've been stonewalled.
"There's about a dozen of us who have hired an attorney and threatened to take them into court if we couldn't get any information, because those are public records. But they still won't talk to us, they still won't give us any information. Yet they hit us with this rate increase.
"The $100 assessment fee should take care of replacing the chlorine and turbidity meters," McElhiney says, "and we don't have a problem with that. That's fine. But it should have been fixed six years ago when it first broke. The problem is, we've got an operator here who's just not doing his job."