The 300 households of Los Trancos Woods and Vista Verde, two unincorporated communities located in the forested slopes along the southern border of San Mateo County, have common interests in preventing wildfires, in safely channeling away storm-water runoff, in conserving fresh water, and in preserving open space.
For seven years, they've been spending money on these interests -- $290,000 in property tax revenues for 2013-14, for example -- but there's been a problem: the small public agency doing the spending has departed from its original mission, in part because its original mission no longer matters.
The Los Trancos County Water District sold its water distribution system in 2006 to the California Water Service Company (Cal Water). The transaction did not dissolve the water district, which still owns about 5.7 acres of land and still spends tax revenues but on activities unrelated to water distribution. This anomalous situation has drawn the attention of the county Civil Grand Jury, which recommended the water district's dissolution, and the state's Legislative Analysts Office, which has mentioned the district in reports exploring effective allocation of tax revenues.
The water district's revenues could be redistributed to agencies that deal specifically with activities like wildfire prevention and open space preservation, including the Woodside Fire Protection District, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, San Mateo County and the town of Portola Valley, according to a report from the county's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). Cal Water could also play a role.
The law allows LAFCo to approve dissolution and include a requirement that the water district's tax revenues be redistributed to "successor agencies to continue services," the report says. The fire protection district, for example, could establish a "zone of benefit in which property tax transferred from the dissolved district ... could be segregated for the benefit of fire and emergency response in Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde."
Denise Enea, fire marshal of the fire protection district, noted in an email that the fire district already provides wildfire prevention services to these communities. "Prevention personnel spend quite a bit of time (there) because we feel it has high fire risk," she said. "Any extra funds the fire district receives from a water-district dissolution would be utilized to increase services as part of our prevention efforts across the (fire) district. We always prioritize the high-risk fire areas. The fire district would want to maintain and possibly increase the fire breaks that the water district has already been working on."
Others options for LAFCo include rechartering the water district as a county maintenance district, for example or allowing the district's revenues to simply blend into the county's mainstream. LAFCo has discretion to act and then react if water district residents protest. Depending on the size of the protest, an election could ensue.
Eliminating the tax altogether is not listed as an option. "The record for the district and the community demonstrates severe storm-water runoff problems, the need for enhanced fire safety and a desire to maintain district owned lands in a natural state," the report says. "Reduction/refund of property tax, if possible, would reduce property tax available to address these important needs."
Go to this link for the complete report, which will be the basis for a LAFCo-initiated community workshop on the water district's future that begins at 7 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Community Hall in Portola Valley Town Center at 765 Portola Road.
It so happens that the water district board is having an election with three candidates -- Bill Coats, Stan Gage and Charlie Krenz -- running for three open seats. They issued a statement, as a slate, on the district's future: "... It is becoming increasingly expensive and complex to run a very small district. The three new candidates hold common goals regarding the future direction of the (district) that will simplify operations, lower costs, and preserve the maximum tax dollars in our community."
The candidates advise the community to "face up to the reality that at some time the district is going to be forced out of existence. If it is done abruptly at others' behest, we may lose much of our benefits. An orderly shutdown of the district will give us the opportunity to preserve some of the current district programs and protect the district lands."
The candidates' priorities: figure out how to maintain the community's property tax revenues to maximize benefits while minimizing management costs, convert the 5.7 acres of district-owned land to open space, and conduct a survey to gauge community opinion.
If dissolution is the answer, the concern is "What comes next?" If LAFCo were to approve dissolution, there is no obligation for successor agencies to take on the maintenance activities the water district had been doing on its own, the report says.
"LAFCo says all this will happen, but they can't force it to happen," Mr. Krenz said in an interview. If LAFCo is unpersuasive, that would "force (the water district) to stay in business. That's not something I really want to do," he said. "I'm in this (race) to wind it down and secure some of these services."
■ George Lee, a candidate for the board of the Los Trancos County Water District in the November election, said he supports the priorities of his fellow candidates, but that responsibilities associated with his new business "will preclude his ability to be a director." Mr. Lee asks voters to bypass his name on the printed ballot and vote for the other three candidates.
■ A community workshop on the water district's future is set for 7 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 19, at the Community Hall at Portola Valley Town Center at 765 Portola Road.