By Joe Tash
The Santa Fe Irrigation District is planning a series of half-day public workshop meetings in the coming months to deal with pressing financial issues such as anticipated costs for imported water, employee compensation, retirement benefits and capital projects.
The district’s board of directors voted to hold the series of workshops at its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, Jan. 20. The first workshop session is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 22. At least two more workshops will also be scheduled in the coming weeks. The agenda for the February workshop has not been set.
In past years, the board held annual workshops to chart the district’s long-term course, creating strategic plans looking out five years ahead. But with the costs of water spiking sharply in recent years, and projections for additional increases to come, the planning horizon has become shorter, said board President Michael Hogan.
“This is a change, the world we live in with regard to water has changed. It’s very volatile. We can’t necessarily plan five years ahead like we have in the past,” Hogan said after last week’s meeting.
“Right now the five-year horizon is very speculative. We have to look at a shorter horizon, the next two years, because that’s the time period that we have more information (about).”
In November, directors raised water rates by 12 percent, an increase that takes effect Feb. 1. The rate hike came on the heels of a 50 percent rise in the district’s water rates over the past three years.
Directors have also approved rate hikes of up to 12 percent for each of the next two years, although the need for the increases will be considered each year before they take effect.
The main cause of the increases, district officials said, is the rising cost of imported water, which comes from two sources: the Colorado River and northern California. The Santa Fe district — like other local water agencies — has been working to cut costs in other areas, and explore local sources such as expansion of recycled water programs, in an effort to keep rates down as much as possible.
Since a public hearing in October, when a standing room only crowd turned out to criticize the proposed rate increases, a number of district residents have attended the board’s monthly meetings, urging cuts in such areas as employee pensions and board compensation.
Several residents spoke out at last week’s meeting as well. Sam Ursini told the board to exercise leadership by trimming its own compensation and medical benefits. Simply contending that other districts also provide such benefits to their elected officials “doesn’t fly,” Ursini said.
Another resident, Rankin van Anda, said the board needs to undertake pension reform, explore consolidation of administrative functions with other water districts and reduce or eliminate health care benefits for board members.
“Their comments are not going unheard,” said Hogan.
Pension reform is one of the topics Hogan said he wants to tackle in the upcoming workshop meetings. The district’s options are limited by the rules of CalPERS, a state retirement system to which the district belongs. Hogan said he wants district staff to research options — such as creating a new tier of lower retire benefits for new hires — before the discussion.
The workshops provide an opportunity for members of the public to hear the same information as the board, to give their opinions and to listen to the board’s deliberations as it sets policy for the district, Hogan said.
“It’s one way to get everyone on the same page,” he said.
As to the issue of board compensation, Hogan said the board discusses that issue each year at its February meeting, and the topic will come up on the board’s regular agenda next month.
District directors receive a per diem payment of $200 for each meeting they attend. They are also eligible to receive medical and dental benefits paid for by the district.