A crowded community meeting designed to get a fresh start in addressing the problems of the Pine Strawberry Water Improvement District on Saturday mixed compliments on the improved water supply with comments about strife in the district and a $40 monthly stand-by water charge.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin facilitated the daylong session, intended to help the newly elected, independent board come up with a plan for the future and address continued controversies.
“The number one thing that they said,” summarized Martin, “they want clean, healthy water every time they turn on the
tap. Also, they talked about never wanting to go on water restrictions again. One fellow said, I don’t want to get to the bottom of my Daniels and water and get a mouthful of sand — I don’t care if it’s healthy, I don’t want a mouthful of sand.”
However, she said most people also expressed strong support for the efforts the board has made to improve the water supply. For the most part, the people who were there were in support of that board, thought it was better than it had ever been — even with muddy water and all. All of them remember not being able to bathe on the Fourth of July for four or five days.”
Board members sat in the audience but didn’t speak or respond to comments, mind-
ful of the Open Meeting Law’s prohibition against deciding on policy anywhere but in an advertised board meeting. However, the board will meet on Thursday evening to begin its budget discussions, which will offer the board a chance to begin to implement the priorities expressed in the town meeting.
It will also begin to test whether the board can change the often conflict-ridden tenor of past board meetings, now that Realtor Ray Pugel has taken over the chairmanship.
“The other thing that came through loud and clear,” said Martin, “was that the meetings have been very painful for everyone — painful meetings, which they would love not to have. They would love to go to those meetings and not leave feeling beat up — on both sides.”
Martin asked each person in the audience to articulate their concerns and goals. About 35 people expressed strong support for the district’s actions since it bought out Brooke Utilities, lifted a decade-old building moratorium and dramatically increased the water supply.
“We’re not giving people enough credit for trying to change things. It’s like pushing a chain,” said one resident.
However, about 20 people expressed concerns about the level of bitterness and strife at meetings, the monthly standby charge for part-timers, continued leaks, outages and silt in the water. Other concerns included the $1,200 charge to reconnect a water meter and a proposed requirement for an expensive backflow control device for people who own horses.
“I see no reason I should pay water bills year-round when I don’t even use my (3,000 gallons a month) limit in the summer,” said one part-time resident. The district charges about $40 a month for the first 3,000 gallons used, but imposes that charge even if the homeowner doesn’t use any water at all.
“I’d like to see people get together and cooperate, because it seems like we have Strawberry people and Pine people,” said another resident.
Still, the meeting struck a positive tone and most participants expressed a shared relief at the changeover from Brooke Utilities. Since buying out the private company, the district has acquired four new wells and eliminated summer water rationing and expensive water hauling. The changes have come at a cost, since some participants said that their water bills have effectively doubled — especially the part-time residents.
Martin said many people at the meeting focused on the need to reconsider the rate structure — or at least better explain to residents the need to impose a water standby charge for people who don’t use any water at all in a given month.
“They’d like to pay for the water they actually use,” said Martin. “Now they get a water bill that has a 3,000-gallon minimum. They would prefer to have a price for the water to reach their lot and then pay for every gallon they use. That came from both the folks that live there full-time and the folks that live there part-time. They thoroughly understood they have two different ways of paying for this whole thing. As water company owners, they’re paying for that company through their property taxes. As water users, they’re paying for that through their rate. It was interesting to me — nobody talked about the taxes.”
Several people objected to the district’s $1,200 charge to reconnect a water meter, which is different from an impact fee to buy into the infrastructure costs when bringing water service to a previously vacant lot.
“Paying $1,200 to reinstall a water meter is exorbitant. It needs to be adjusted in fairness,” said one resident.
Another resident objected to a letter warning that he would have to install an $800 backflow regulator on his water line because he owns horses, even though his horses have never created a problem and their water trough isn’t connected to the system.
A number of comments focused on the murky water that often gushes from the pipes.
The district hasn’t determined with certainty the cause of the intermittently murky water. Some evidence implicates the Milk Ranch Well, which sucks up sand and dirt above certain number of gallons per minute. The board recently approved a plan to put a $32,000 filter on the well to see if that makes a difference. Other evidence suggests that some of the murky water may come from leaks in the aging network of pipes in the ground the district inherited from Brooke Utilities or other factors.
David Sandoval, a Mesa building inspector with a second home in Pine he wants to soon move to full-time, said he and his wife have a standing bet as to whether the first gush of water from their pipes will be muddy. “We’re batting about 50/50 so far,” he said.
Still, the meeting reflected a great desire to celebrate the changes, fix the problems and move forward without the debilitating rancor that has so often shrouded water issues in the two communities.
“The purpose of this meeting was to begin to build trust back,” said Martin. “A fully functioning organization is built on trust and acceptance. This group has been working with very little trust and acceptance. To get there, you have to behave yourself into trust. So the monkey’s on everybody’s back — whether you’re the naysayer or the chairman of the board.”