The Gila County Board of Supervisors should take over the Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District, insisted critics of the district’s attempt to buy the private water company.
However, the Board of Supervisors took no action on the request at an odd and contentious work study meeting Tuesday, which even one board member complained involved more political posturing than problem solving.
About 80 people crammed into the three-hour session in a meeting room at the county maintenance yard to listen to a withering indictment, both of the water district board and Brooke Utilities, which owns the water company serving the two communities.
Yet, oddly enough, the county did not invite members of the water board, nor representatives of Brooke to speak.
In the end, much of the meeting turned on the role of county water consultant Harry Jones, which served to deepen a conflict between supervisors Shirley Dawson and Tommie Martin.
“Why are we here?” asked Supervisor Dawson, repeating the question raised by several speakers. “The purpose was to hear your thoughts and for both sides to understand what’s going on.”
But Martin said it made little sense to air the issues without including the key players.
“We need to listen to more than the fringe ends of the argument,” she said after the meeting. “So much of this seemed pointed at the (water district) board. If I were on that board, I’d be highly insulted we did this without any board members (on the agenda to speak).”
The meeting opened with brief presentations by Payson Mayor Kenny Evans on the Blue Ridge pipeline, and Star Valley Councilman Vern Leis about long-term water concerns facing that community. However, those presentations seemed like window dressing for a an attack on the absent water district board — and on Jones, who consults with both the county and the water district.
At the meeting, critics said the water district board has squandered taxpayer money and wallowed in serious conflicts of interest in the course of canceling the controversial K-2 Well and trying to condemn and buy the water company owned by Brooke Utilities.
Dawson had pressed Realtor Ray Pugel to represent the water district’s viewpoint. Pugel has been in the thick of the protracted fight with Brooke Utilities, including efforts to block the K2 Well.
He and business partner Robert Randall also drilled their own well that proved the existence of a deeper water table. They are now negotiating to sell that well to the district.
Pugel insisted he does not represent the board.
“What am I doing here? I really don’t know why I’m here. I speak for no one. I represent no one and I sent e-mails saying I didn’t want to be here.”
He then turned his time over to Jones, who works for both the Pine Strawberry water district and the county as a consultant on water issues.
Jones delivered a low-key but devastating indictment of Brooke Utilities, saying the private utility had failed its 3,400 customers in Pine and Strawberry. He said the Arizona Corporation Commission has imposed a moratorium on water hookups because of the persistent shortage, which has halted almost all new development in the community.
Even so, sometimes in the summer, storage tanks run dry and Brooke Utilities must haul in water from a source outside of the community, which boosts homeowners’ water bills four- or five-fold.
“The private water purveyor has been unable to do what it takes to add to the water resources,” said Jones.
Jones said the Corporation Commission has proven “unable to successfully monitor or regulate the monopolist (private water company) they put in place 13 years ago.”
He said the company had promoted the “myth” that the area had no more groundwater and that residents could not afford to upgrade the system. In fact, deep wells have hit a new water supply. The water district had agreed to put up some $1.2 million to induce Brooke to drill a deep well — the K2 Well. Critics attacked that plan as a sweetheart deal for Brooke that would likely cost three times as much as a normal well.
Clearly, the water system “is broken” and residents had every reason to pursue the takeover of the water company by the water district, said Jones.
However, three persistent critics of the water district countered with a long list of withering criticisms, including the claim that Jones should not work for both the county and the water district. Moreover, critics said Jones was on a county contract when he worked directly to support the recall of the board members who supported the K2 Well.
Jones flatly denied he ever worked on the recall effort while on a county contract, although he said he did provide advice on water issues to both sides during the recall.
Finally, the critics cited as a conflict of interest the district’s use of a contract attorney who also worked for Pugel and several other agencies and individuals involved in the long and complicated dispute.
Pine resident Pam Mason said that Jones, while on a county contract, had fought the K2 Well and supported the recall of water district board members. She said the abandonment of the K2 Well plan would prove costly to the district and delay the addition of a major new water supply by perhaps two years. In the meantime, she said, Jones has collected substantial fees from both the county and the water district.
She also insisted that the water district board’s decision to hire Flagstaff attorney John Gliege represented both a conflict of interest and a waste of money.
She said Gliege has, in the past, represented Pugel and critics of Brooke Utilities testifying before the Corporation Commission. She said the attorney has already billed the district for about $270,000 and, if present trends continue, the bill for legal advice could top $650,000. Yet despite all that spending, she predicted the board would not have enough money to actually buy the water company.
Persistent water board critic Sam Schwalm called on the county board of supervisors to invoke a rarely-used provision of state law to assume control.
He said the district has already spent some $420,000 trying to condemn and buy the water company, although it doesn’t have the money, and a promised line of credit has been revoked.
“Their spend rate is $35,000 a month and they’re going to run out of money before they get to the end. If the district does run out of money, it will result in a failed condemnation, which means all that money will be flushed.”
He said the board has bungled the condemnation and other key negotiations, like the plan to buy the Milk Ranch Well from Pugel.
Schwalm insisted “the board has not exercised proper fiduciary responsibility.”
Toni Sorel lamented the “confusion and dissent” and urged the board to take over the water district and put the community out of its misery.
“Now it’s impossible to discuss any of the options with our neighbors without being abused. Anyone who was in support of the K2 Well is seen as evil,” she said.
Dawson urged both sides to work things out. “It is only the consultants and the attorneys who get rich out of this. I really believe you’ve lost sight of why you came to Pine and Strawberry. You can’t enjoy life when you’re at each other’s throats.”
However, Supervisor Martin concluded the board should not have let the meeting turn into an attack on the water district board without the board present.
“My board ought to honor the process the other elected board is in the middle of. And take them up on meeting with them in executive session,” she said.