Geronimo Estates homeowners got their water service restored Friday, after the Arizona Corporation Commission ordered Steve Prahin to give Brooke Utilities access to a disputed well and water tank.
“The water was back on Friday,” said commission spokesperson Rebecca Wilder.
The corporation commission’s order left
undecided the long-running, underlying dispute between Prahin and the private water company about who owns the well.
The attorney representing Brooke Utilities did not return a phone call before deadline. However, the company’s filings before the corporation commission maintained that Prahin’s refusal to allow access had resulted in the water cutoff — and implied Prahin had actually turned off the water valve coming out of a well-fed water storage tank that Prahin
insists he owns, but which the company believes it acquired when it bought Payson Water Company in 1998.
However, Prahin told the Roundup on Monday that he did deny the water company access to the well, but never turned off the water.
He said he doubted anyone actually lost water service, except for some customers affected by the change of a valve by the company. The well automatically pumps water into a storage tank to provide water on demand.
“I didn’t cut off water to nobody,” said the former dairy farmer and veteran who says he acquired the well site for about $5,000 in back-due taxes and liens and has been battling Brooke Utilities about its ownership ever since.
Prahin said he’s satisfied the corporation commission’s action will provoke a solution to the dispute and said he had always complied with corporation commission directives.
He vowed to battle Brooke Utilities President Robert Hardcastle in court to prove that he owns the well.
“Robert Hardcastle has met somebody just as hardheaded as he is. I’m not a cottonwood: I’m from oak strain.”
Prahin said “they’ve filed a suit, I’m going to respond to it with a counter suit. It’s been libel and slander. I’ve had two heart attacks. I don’t need no more of their aggravation in my life: I moved up here to be left alone and enjoy the years I have left. But I haven’t had one peaceful night’s sleep because of what they’ve done and continue to do.”
The corporation commission’s order repeatedly indicated its action was not based on any determination as to who owned the well and storage tank.
However, the commission directed Brooke Utilities to take the ownership dispute to court — which Prahin welcomed, after years of filing futile complaints.
The commission’s order required Brooke Utilities — which operates Payson Water Company — to report back within two weeks to discuss a “resolution to this dispute. If the company concludes that seeking judicial relief is not in its best interests or its customers’ interests, it shall explain the rationale for that conclusion in this report.”
The commission’s order concluded “to the extent that Mr. Prahin has any alleged ownership interest in plant that is dedicated to public use, he thereby becomes a public service corporation.”
Therefore, the commission held that Prahin “is enjoined from interfering with the operation of the well, tank and other plant infrastructure, which may be located on any property in which he has an interest and from prohibiting the company or its employees from accessing the plant infrastructure.”
Reportedly, back on Nov. 16 Prahin said he would not allow the water company access to the well. Both the Brooke representative and Prahin called the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, waiting about an hour for the deputy’s arrival. The deputy then looked at Prahin’s deed and other paperwork and concluded the sheriff’s office had no authority to give Brooke access to the well site.
However, Prahin said he will comply with the commission’s order.
The disputed well provides water for both Geronimo Estates and the much smaller Elusive Acres.
Dispute starts in 1980s
The case dates back to the early 1980s, when United Utilities operated the system for the remote subdivision off the Control Road, consisting mostly of weekend and summer homes. The corporation commission had imposed a moratorium on any new water hookups because the two small wells in Geronimo Estates couldn’t produce enough water for the existing residents.
So when Mark Boroski bought about 30 acres in what would become Elusive Acres, United Utilities said it could not provide service.
Rather than hauling water to fill storage tanks as perhaps half the property owners now do, Boroski reportedly spent $150,000 to drill a well, build a storage tank and put in pipes to deliver the water. However, United Utilities then told him he couldn’t use the well to provide water to the 30 lots in the subdivision because it had the exclusive right to sell water in the area.
Boroski then reportedly entered into an agreement with United to give the company the well in exchange for $32,000 and 10 percent of the money it collected from sale of that water.
According to Prahin’s accounts filed with the commission that included a notarized statement from Boroski saying United then violated the agreement by connecting the well to the existing system supplying Geronimo Estates. Moreover, the company never paid Boroski any of the money agreed to in the 1989 agreement, filed with the corporation commission.
Boroski then moved to Ohio, although Prahin said he remained in touch with his neighbor.
In 1998, Brooke bought 15 United Utilities water systems, including the one serving Geronimo Estates. In subsequent statements on file with the corporation commission, the company listed the disputed well among its assets.
Some nine years later, Prahin was scanning the legal ads in the Roundup when he spotted the sale of water-related assets on the land next door, which belonged to Boroski. Prahin bought the facilities for the cost of the back-taxes, as well as a lien filed by another man from Globe for about $5,000. He also contacted Boroski, who said he didn’t realize the taxes had accumulated.
The legal question now revolves around whether United Utilities acquired ownership of the well and storage tank as a result of its 1989 agreement with Boroski, filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Prahin maintains the agreement never took effect because the company never paid Boroski the money it owed.
Attorneys for Brooke Utilities, on the other hand, maintain that the company legally paid for the well when they purchased United’s water companies, since the well was included in United’s list of assets.
Building moratorium in place
The building moratorium has remained in place for 30 years. The corporation commission has indicated it will lift the moratorium if Brooke builds an extra water storage tank in Geronimo Estates and acquires clear title to the disputed well. That well produces about 24 gallons a minute. By contrast, the two wells Brooke owns in Geronimo Estates produce 3 to 10 gallons per minute, according to various estimates.
Many people in the subdivisions rely on cisterns to catch runoff and bring in their own water when they visit for the weekend. But most of the lots remain all but undevelopable due to the lack of water. Filings before the commission indicated that a water meter adds $10,000 to $15,000 to the value of a property.
Prahin said he wants to see the moratorium lifted — and drive Brooke Utilities out of the region.
He recalled that his father once sued Dow Chemical for 18 cents — and displayed the check on his wall for the rest of his life. Now, he said he’s fighting for constitutional principles.
“It’s called ‘principle.’ We have too many sheep and not enough shepherds. I happen to be a shepherd. When I was honorably discharged from the military, no one told me that the Constitution doesn’t matter anymore. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have invested the last seven years and $40,000 of my own money fighting this unconstitutional taking of land, liberty and happiness — because the corporation commission won’t do its job.”