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Exeter cuts Tooleville connection talks for now

Exeter cuts Tooleville connection talks for now

Already stretched thin, Exeter Council votes to do nothing rather than take on Tooleville’s water issues

By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN

EXETER – Tooleville’s hope for an Exeter water connection took a devastating hit last week as Tooleville residents left council chambers in tears and all but defeated.

After years of lobbying efforts and close calls, Tooleville and Exeter were as close as they had ever been on procuring a connection. Ultimately the Exeter City Council decided they have more on their plate than they can handle, and finding the narrow path to connecting it’s water supply with Tooleville is not feasible right now.

EXETER FIRST

Staring down funding concerns for utility repairs, identified by the water master plan that published last month, the council could not imagine taking on another project for a neighboring community.

“If we weren’t in the state that we have now…if we were living hot and heavy and [everything was fixed] then possibly,” Councilman Frankie Alves said.

Attorney Michael Claiborne with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, advocating on behalf of Tooleville noted several incentives added that it would not be fair to Exeter residents.

“I’m the guy you want to raise rates on to fix problems in Exeter,” Moreno said. “We have to take care of our own issues here.”

Exeter mayor Mary Waterman-Philpot added during council discussions that she thinks this is a problem that fell into the council’s lap despite Tooleville being in the County’s jurisdiction.

“My thing is, why are we still hearing crickets from the County? Why haven’t we seen Kuyler Crocker,” Waterman-Philpot said.

Tulare County District One Board Supervisor, Kuyler Crocker said he doesn’t disagree that this is a county issue. But he is confident the state is going to make Exeter consolidate their system with Tooleville. Currently the County provides sewer services for Tooleville, but neither Crocker or the Board have offered any kind of direction at the County level regarding Tooleville water. Although, Crocker said he has had conversations with City staff about it, he noted that he has not spoken with any of the council members.

“I would hope they would pick up the phone and call me if they are going to make public comments,” Crocker said.

Alves echoed Waterman-Philpot’s sentiment noting that he feels as if everyone is punting the issue to them, and they already have a commitment to serve the residents of Exeter.

Residents in Tooleville have been afflicted with poor water quality for decades and hope to consolidate with Exeter’s water system. Photo by Patrick Dillon

Residents in Tooleville have been afflicted with poor water quality for decades and hope to consolidate with Exeter’s water system. Photo by Patrick Dillon

“Just like [Frank Moreno] said, is it worth it to take on another project? Is it fair to our residents,” Alves asked rhetorically.

Attorney Michael Claiborne with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, advocating on behalf of Tooleville noted several incentives that had the potential to benefit Exeter as well as Tooleville. Claiborne admitted that it is a months long process and would need some dedicated staff time to explore the options. However those were staff hours Waterman-Philpot were not willing to give. She went on to deliver the most decisive words of the night.

“Our staff is already working at capacity trying to get our immediate water needs met. We can’t keep stretching Daymon and his staff, and Adam and his staff chasing other people’s issues. I know that sounds crass…the basic problem is we have our own issues right now,” Waterman-Philpot said.

Council members consistently referred to their water master plan that published last month that outlined the situation the Exeter water system is in. And while most of it was not surprising, it is nonetheless a system in need of significant repair.

Public works director Daymon Qualls noted during an Aug. 13 presentation about the master plan to the Council that in all the City has 47 miles of distribution pipelines, 325 fire hydrants, about 900 water valves and 3,832 residential/commercial water service connections with meters. He pointed out that some pipes are 70 years old or more and made with products that are not even made anymore. To do an entire replacement of the water system would be approximately $65 million.

As well, of the City’s eight wells, six are active and providing a total capacity of 3,325 gallons per minute if all of them run at the same time. The greatest producer is the Park Place well at 1,132 GPM. The City hopes to rehabilitate the two wells that are currently offline to add more water to the system. Already 1,100 gallons per minute short of the minimum standard set by the state, adding Tooleville to the system would increase the deficit by another 223 gallons per minute.

But that is just the water system. The plan reviewed the needs of the sewer system as well. Ennis said the last known master plan over the sewer system was done in 1974. The City currently has 36 miles of collection pipe ranging from four inches to 36 inches in diameter. Exeter has let some aspects of their outdated sewer system go on. Public works gets calls often over the lift station on Industrial Drive, and as Qualls put it, it is in desperate need of repair.

The best way to maintain and repair both the sewer and water system is to increase rates, which the Council is considering at their next meeting on Sept. 24. If the Council decides to increase rates, they will have to ask residents to fork over a few more dollars per month for their water, sewer or both.

In addition, Exeter is facing a declining general fund. Ennis noted that the police department has cars reaching 200,000 miles and little to no money to replace them. The only way to raise revenue in the general fund is to pass a sales tax measure. Currently the City is among the lowest in sale tax at 7.75% while other cities like Farmersville, Woodlake and Lindsay are at 8.75%.

The Council has not broached the topic of a sales tax measure yet.

Alves motioned for no action because the state of the Exeter water system, but added the caveat that his vote is just for now, leaving the door open for talks in the future. The motion was seconded by councilman Jeremy Petty and voted unanimously.

OPTIONS ON THE TABLE

While consolidation was the only option Tooleville and Leadership Counsel were interested in, it was not the only option on the table.

The Council had three other options in addition to no action. Exeter could have offered: a master meter alternative; a master meter with contract for Exeter to provide billing, maintenance and operation services; and then full consolidation. All of which came with the tag line, “need commitment from State to pay all costs of connection.”

In total, at least estimated in Exeter’s mast plan, connecting to Tooleville would require almost a mile of piping and would cost as much as $1.1 million.

Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability attorney, advocating on behalf of Tooleville, Michael Claiborne discusses potential incentives the City of Exeter stands to gain from a full consolidation with Tooleville’s water system. In the end they were not enough to sway Exeter council members to vote in favor of moving forward with a connection. Photo by Paul Myers

A master meter would have accounted for all of the water sent to Tooleville, but not the amount of water used by individual customers. Ennis pointed out during his presentation that the benefits to Tooleville include a more stable water supply, and Tooleville should continue to be eligible for State and Federal grants for drinking water solutions.

On the other hand there are several challenges posed to Exeter as the supplier. Ennis outlined that there would be some additional responsibility and potential future risk for City to supply water. The City would be exposed to future regulatory requirements from the State Water Board and groundwater sustainability agencies. As well the Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Company (TMNWC) would have to continue managing their small system.

A master meter with contracted services would have the same benefits to Tooleville, and pose the same challenges to Exeter with additional challenges over providing water and services outside of Exeter’s jurisdiction.

Exeter city manager Adam Ennis noted the City’s ability to enforce conservation and other requirements is diminished because Tooleville residents are not residents of Exeter. As well, Ennis noted there would be a need for improvements to the County right of way in the case where the City needs to fix the pipe out to Tooleville that is in the County’s jurisdiction.

Exeter City Council was concerned with potential issues with tax rolling delinquencies. The City would have to rely on the County to process the tax roll.

“I don’t think the County would willingly give us that money,” Alves said.

Ennis pointed out that the County would not like do it for free either.

During his presentation to the Council, Ennis noted that in a conversation with Woodlake city manager Ramon Lara, that public safety had to be called to support city staff in serving a notice to a property that had been connected to water outside of Woodlake’s city limits. Ennis noted that a similar circumstance would force the City to call the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office for support.

FULL CONSOLIDATION

Claiborne laid out a list of incentives the City stands to gain if they choose to consolidate.

The benefits to Tooleville are obvious. Tooleville would be able to shed the poor water conditions that have plagued their system for decades and access a more stable water supply. Also, the TMNWC would no longer have the challenge of operating their own system. However, the City also stood to reap some potential benefits.

On the table were partial or full funding for a storage tank and booster pump. Exeter’s master plan identified that the City needs a 500,000 gallon water storage tank to meet the needs of the city for now and into the future. For comparison, Exeter’s iconic water tower holds only 100,000 gallons and was constructed in 1911 when the tower needed to serve far fewer residents. Exeter is now closer to broaching 12,000 people.

Other incentives included partial or full funding for a new well. This solution has been on the docket for more than a decade and seen as the most viable option for years. It is supposed that the City would gather 80% of the well’s capacity while wheeling the remaining 20% to Tooleville. The hangup has always been cost. Exeter is not willing to pay for a new well if their system does not need it. A helpful point in Tooleville’s favor was that the City recently learned they need 1,100 additional gallons per minute to meet state standard daily demand.

The last potential incentive was a low or no interest loan to refinance the City’s current debt in their water fund. The water fund is hampered by almost $500,000 worth of debt service. Finance director Chris Tavarez says about 30% of the customers’ water bill is allocated to the debt in the fund. Part of the half million debt service is from a low interest U.S. Department of Agriculture loan needed for the new residential water meter system installed two years ago. But other debt service also came from well and water line improvements.

While the incentives are a selling point, according to councilwoman Barbara Sally an indication of potential incentives is not strong enough.

“We need to make sure there is a firm commitment with the State before we jump into anything,” Sally said.

“There are so many unknowns,” new councilman David Hails said.

“We can’t count on what the state is going to do. The state might say one thing today and six months from now tell us something else,” Waterman-Philpot added.

Claiborne said he had spoken with city staff the afternoon before the meeting and went over the incentives provided with full consolidation. After the vote, he said he was shocked by the Council’s decision.

“We think Exeter left a lot of money on the table,” Claiborne said.

TESTIMONY AND ONWARD

Pedro Hernandez from Leadership Counsel, working to procure a connection to Exeter’s water system implored the Council to strongly consider consolidation. He noted how water is a growing priority in California, in addition to a human right.

“Right now, water is the hot topic in the state. So I think it would make sense to strike while the iron is hot,” Hernandez said.

Residents from Tooleville spoke up as well.

“Everybody needs water out there. We need some help is all,” Ruben Salazar said.

Maria Herrera reminded the Council that while her family lives in Tooleville, they participate in Exeter in other ways.

“Our kids go to school here, we shop here…and we need your help,” Herrera said.

After the vote Benjamin Cuevas said he thought the Council should have considered consolidation and held off on a vote for the time being. Cuevas said he grew up in Tooleville and remembers when the community had their wells installed in 1974. He moved away and lived in Exeter for several years before buying a house in Tooleville in May 2018 on a first-time homebuyer loan.

“I didn’t know about the water issues when we bought it,” Cuevas said.

He added that because of the first-time homebuyer loan he cannot sell the house until next May, when they have been in the house for two years.

Hernandez said he did not see the vote coming and considered it a “failure of leadership.” Claiborne and Hernandez said the next steps for Tooleville is appealing to the State Water Board.

“I think resiliency is a defining characteristic for the people of Tooleville,” Hernandez said. “There is nothing stopping us from discussion with the state.”

Claiborne claims the SWB has the authority to mandate extensions.

“That is something we are going to pursue…not necessarily the path forward but something we are looking at,” Claiborne said.

He added that he would continue conversations with city staff to continue solution based conversations.

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