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District collects taxes, doesn't provide water

Residents of unincorporated Los Trancos Woods and Vista Verde don't seem to be losing sleep over the fact that the Los Trancos County Water District doesn't control their water but taxes them as if it did.

A San Mateo County civil grand jury takes a sterner view: In December, it issued a report recommending that the district be dissolved.

The Los Trancos district's water distribution system was sold to California Water Service Co. (Cal Water) in 2006, but the district still owns land and collects taxes, about $220,000 for the 2007-08 fiscal year, past board president Charles Krenz said in a telephone interview.

About 50 percent of those revenues come back to residents as a 70 percent rebate on their first 187,000 gallons of water, a bit above the district's average per home per year, Mr. Krenz said. The subsidy "is designed to not incentivize high levels of consumption," he added.

Some money goes to district staff: an attorney and a recording secretary who receives a $200 monthly stipend, he said.

The district also subsidizes efforts to reduce wildfire risks, covering part of the cost to residents of replacing wood-shake roofs and clearing flammable vegetation from around homes, Mr. Krenz said.

Those revenues could be used to "benefit the broader community," the grand jury said. The report also cited the district for failing to find a steward for its five acres of unimproved land, which includes a small reservoir.

Recommendations to dissolve the Los Trancos district are not new. After Cal Water took over in 2006, the county agency charged with overseeing public agency jurisdictions (known as LAFCO) recommended dismantling the water district.

Recently in Sacramento, the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) labeled the Los Trancos district an "extreme" example of misdirected use of property taxes.

The LAO is proposing that California water and waste-water districts that are funded by property taxes change to a fee-based system, in part because it would encourage water conservation and because the tax revenues could then be redirected, for example, to county services. The LAO is proposing to transfer supervision of "lover level" prison parolees to county probation departments.

What's in a name?

About the time that Cal Water took over, the water district surveyed its residents. Of the 58 percent of households that participated, 87 percent wanted to maintain the district and its new fire-risk-abatement mission, Mr. Krenz said.

Residents also want to keep intact the rural character of district lands; the board is intent on maintaining that character and may seek a managing partner later, Mr. Krenz said. The grand jury recommended several, including the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District and the town of Portola Valley.

The district is sprucing up the reservoir, removing invasive plants and addressing wildfire hazards, Mr. Krenz said.

"The grand jury report was a little harsh," he said. The water district, he said, "is the only local government there is up here. We live in a tinderbox up here. The Woodside Fire Protection District cannot provide the one-on-one awareness (of wildfire risk). We're filling a needed niche. ... It's not that much that we do and we don't use much money to do it."

Recommendations by the LAO and the grand jury do not have the force of law, and until the state Legislature acts on the issue, the Los Trancos district will continue business as usual, Mr. Krenz said.

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