Public opinion of little consequence

in coming LAFCO sewer decision

By Tina Richards

Whether residents in Sewer Area 7 prefer Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD), or East Orange County Water District (EOCWD), to take on operation and management responsibilities for their local system, depends on who you talk to.

The Irvine Ranch Water District conducted a survey of 300 area residents in December, and found that 63.3 percent of those polled favored it over EOCWD.  A survey of 300 residents conducted by EOCWD in February found that 77 percent of respondents preferred it over IRWD.

Both surveys were conducted by professional pollsters and have a 95 percent confidence rating.

The price is right

The IRWD survey focused on its costs and experience.  At the time residents were polled, IRWD had offered customers a 50 percent rate cut and EOCWD had offered a 10 percent rate cut.  EOCWD subsequently revised its proposal to include a 50 percent rate cut as well.

IRWD currently provides sew-er service to customers in Irvine, Lake Forest, parts of Tustin, Newport Beach, Foothill Ranch, Costa Mesa, and unincorporated areas of Orange County.  EOCWD provides wholesale water to area service providers, and retail water to portions of North Tustin and East Orange, a 2.3-square-mile service area that nearly mirrors the Area 7 sewer system. It does not currently operate or maintain sewers. Area 7 is managed by the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD).

The IRWD survey found that when respondents knew little about the issue, 44 percent of them favored the Irvine-based agency. When advised of IRWD’s 50 years of sewer experience, and its proposed rate plan that would save the community $3 million annually, the “favorable” number grew to 63.3 percent. The 21.7 percent of residents who initially preferred EOCWD held fairly steady at 21 percent, after being informed of IRWD’s lower costs and greater experience.

Close to you

EOCWD’s survey was conducted after it revised its pro-posed 10 percent cost cut to 50 percent.  With savings from both agencies now the same, EOCWD’s poll focused on level of service, response time and local control. Although EOCWD has no sewer system experience as an agency, its general manager spent 30 years in that discipline, and intends to maintain Area 7 just as OCWD has, using the same crews that inspect, repair and clean the system now. EOCWD intends to clean the system’s pipes every year.  IRWD plans to clean them every two years.

Because EOCWD is located in Orange, it says it can respond to sewer emergencies in Area 7 in 20 minutes. IRWD promises a 30-minute response time. Survey respondents thought annual cleaning and fast emergency response time to be “important” by 85 and 74 percent, respectively.

When asked if having a governing board comprised of community members, as opposed to residents of Irvine and Newport Beach, was important, 68.7 percent said it was.

But it doesn’t matter which survey  most  accurately reflects community opinion, because Sewer Area 7 customers don’t decide which agency will become their service provider. That decision will be made by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a seven member panel appointed by the board of supervisors, a city selection committee, and a special district selection committee. A member from the general public is appointed by the county, city and special district members.

Independent review

LAFCO was created by the state in 1963 to ensure that municipal and special district boundaries are laid out logically and efficiently to best serve the public.  Today, with most agency and jurisdictional boundaries decided, LAFCO persists to facilitate constructive changes in governmental structure and boundaries.

Two years ago OCSD asked EOCWD if it would be interested in taking on the Area 7 sewer system. The county wanted to transfer local sewer systems to local entities so it could focus on the larger, countywide system. EOCWD agreed, and commenced a comprehensive study of Area 7, including a thorough video survey of the pipes themselves, negotiations with the cities of Orange and Tustin, and submitted an application to LAFCO.

That’s when the transfer, already agreed to by all parties involved (OCSD, EOCWD, Tustin, North Tustin, Orange), got complicated.  Part of LAFCO’s responsibility is to query other agencies who might also be interested in providing the service in question. IRWD was one of them, and just weeks before the application period closed, it submitted its proposal for Area 7.

The transfer that was expected to be complete in spring 2015 may finally be decided  this  month. LAFCO’s staff reports have recommended that commissioners choose IRWD, based on its experience, size and cost structure.  But LAFCO critics claim that two commissioners may be unduly influencing the process. LAFCO President Derek McGregor is a consultant whose resume lists IRWD as a client.  LAFCO Commissioner John Withers serves on the board of IRWD.