Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Sadly, there's no end in sight to Rio Linda's water torture

Published: Friday, Oct. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 18A

They cut the ribbon Thursday on Rio Linda's long-overdue new well. Lots of places, there would have been a festive community celebration.

Here, the subdued ceremony, attended by only 20 or so local and state officials, was a rare moment of hope.

And it didn't take long for the destructive politics that has put the Rio Linda/Elverta Community Water District on the edge of financial ruin to bubble up. Right after the switch was flipped on the most modern and productive of the district's 10 active wells, one board member and a former member sought me out to criticize their foes.

I feel badly for the 15,000 residents in northern Sacramento County, who just want clean water at a reasonable cost. Problems have festered for so long that there's no good solution in sight.

There's certainly no guarantee of salvation from the Nov. 6 election – district voters will fill four of the five board seats – that looks like yet another nasty fight between competing factions.

A slate of challengers – Paul Green, Matthew Longo, Duane Anderson and Brent Dills – is trying to take over. The changes they're promising sound good. They may very well be a better alternative than incumbents Cathy Hood and Vivien Spicer-Johnson and former board member Mary Harris, whose conduct when they all were on the board before was blasted by the Sacramento County grand jury.

Yet, will it really matter who wins? The sad truth is it will be extremely difficult for anyone to fix this mess anytime soon.

No one is coming to the rescue from outside the district, either.

Last year, the county grand jury again sounded the alarm that the district was in deep distress and needed outside help. Donald Prange Sr., then the foreman, says he's dismayed that there hasn't been a more urgent response. "People are suffering," he says.

In November 2010, the outside group most closely monitoring the district, the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, issued a draft municipal service review, the first step toward possible consolidation or dissolution.

Two years later, there has been very modest progress.

The latest depressing LAFCO report, last month, concluded that the district's financial condition is "beginning to erode at an increasing rate" and could "result in bankruptcy."

Rio Linda is operating at a loss and is paying creditors with money that should be going into construction and debt repayment accounts. Last year, it took on a $7.5 million loan from the state Department of Public Health, which five years ago ordered the district to fix dangerously low water pressure and other deficiencies.

The district's money woes are made worse by sky-high legal bills caused partly by an irresponsibly generous contract with its legal counsel, Ravi Mehta. With so many employee lawsuits, the district lost its insurance coverage, so it could have to pay such claims out of pocket, putting it in an even deeper hole.

Peter Brundage, LAFCO's executive director, warns that even if another water district or even Sacramento County took over Rio Linda, it would have to take on all the financial risks. Getting the finances in order will mean even higher rates for customers.

Mary Henrici, who in June 2011 became the district's ninth general manager in less than five years, brought some hope since she had actually run a water district before. In her first-year update, she says while she knew about the financial challenges, she did not realize how toxic the political turmoil was on the board.

Henrici is hanging in there, and closely watching the election results. "If the district's here, I'll be here," she told me Thursday. But if she bailed out, who could blame her?

It's difficult, too, to fault Courtney Caron, one of the two incumbents not seeking re-election. She doesn't want to put herself through the fighting any more.

"The cause seems not worth it," she told me.

Residents, though, are stuck. They're the ones paying the price for personal feuds, bad decisions and inaction by outside officials. They're the ones who have to live through the long, painful slog to a well-run water system.

There are also people like Loretta Hitch, who donated the well site and is hoping to develop nearby land. When she received a plaque Thursday, tears flowed through her smiles. Her husband, Rick, died climbing Mount Everest last year and didn't live to see this milestone.

"I know Rick would be proud," she told me. She's "very optimistic" the new well is the start of a turnaround for the district.

For the good people of Rio Linda, I hope she's right.

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