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Old 05-27-2009, 06:32 PM
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Default Water District fees, budget draw fire Edwin Newton

Water District fees, budget draw fire
Edwin Newton

It started out as a way for counties to control perceived water use abuses by oil and gas companies and developers – and to keep from getting swallowed up by nearby metro areas.

But a nearly $1 million budget approved by the new Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District is drawing the ire of small towns and residential water well drillers who feel the pricetag is too high.

For starters, the district is charging 22 cents per thousand gallons to water well customers.

In the city of Reno’s case, that estimated cost is around $113,000 a year – a large chunk of the city’s $712,869 water budget. Other cities like Aledo, which also relies on groundwater for the majority of its water, are similarly affected.

A $175 fee for new water well drilling has also drawn criticism. On the bright side, the district is considering a fee exemption for current well owners who must re-drill and elderly citizens who can’t afford it.

State Representative Phil King said the fees are not what he had in mind when he helped prepare legislation to create the district last year.

“I have been contacted by many constituents concerned over the direction taken recently by the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District,” he said in a letter. “I share those concerns particularly with regard to the financial impact the district will have on homeowners. The district was never intended to regulate or assess fees upon residential well owners or municipalities.”

Citizen complaints have also reached the office of Parker County Judge Mark Riley.

He is calling for the legislature – which convenes in January – to develop “cleanup legislation” to correct what he feels has gone wrong with the district. He said the district’s $946,650 budget is much higher than what he thought a “startup” district called for.

“There’s going to have to be fees – but it has to be reasonable getting started,” he said.

He said he’s also not happy with the “rude” way many of his constituents have been treated when they have asked questions about the fees.

“I have had so many complaints about how he (the chairman) treats our people,” he said. “The district has its place – but it has to be careful how it treats our people.”

Board member defends work

Karin Malone, one of two Parker County representatives on the board, said she understands why folks are upset.

“No, I don’t like setting fees – taxes,” she said.

But she said she had gotten complaints from folks living in subdivisions who are running out of water and have no money to drill a well themselves.

She said there was little choice but to form a district. The four counties in the Upper Trinity – Parker, Wise, Montague and Hood – were told they had to come up with their own district or risk being part of a larger, 13-county district. That would have grouped Parker County with metropolitan counties to the east and given them much less say in district affairs.

A regional groundwater study which pointed to low water levels in the Trinity Aquifer had Malone concerned enough to volunteer to serve on the board. She and her husband own a water well drilling company.

Malone said the current $946,650 budget is actually less than what board members first proposed. The original budget was for $1.4 million, with a 27 cent per 1,000 gallon usage fee. But pressure from city officials and other commercial users caused the board to reduce the fee to a maximum of 22 cents per 1,000 gallons.

Malone said $80,000 of the budget is being used to pay an engineer who will help the district decide what area’s water can safely be taken from without depleting the aquifer – and what can’t. Engineers will help keep water well drilling operations “spaced out” to reduce too much usage in one area.

About $200,000 of the district’s budget is earmarked for payroll. Malone said the district has actually reduced the number of projected offices in the four-county area to two – with two full-time personnel in each.

She expects well registration – which begins in January – to take much of the employees’ time.

Another $200,000 of the budget is dedicated to legal fees – which doesn’t sit well with Riley, who feels the board listens too much to its attorney already.

Office expenses amount to roughly $123,000. But Malone said the district is trying to get counties, like Parker, to donate office space, which would reduce further office expense.

Malone said the district already owes Wise County about $100,000 in debt for start up costs.

Malone votes against fee

Malone didn’t agree with the $175 registration fee for new wells. She said $125 was more in line with what was necessary. But she was the only board member to vote against the higher fee when it was approved last month.

As for the burden on municipalities, Malone said she believes the district has little choice.

“The only way gas producers would allow this is to treat all large users of well water equally,” she said.

Malone said that although she doesn’t feel reducing this year’s budget is an option, she hopes to be able to do so next year when some of the district’s iknitial start up costs are over.

King said he doesn’t want to wait until next year.

He is encouraging cities adversely affected by district fees to contact local commissioners with their complaints. Several cities, like Reno and Aledo, are drafting resolutions voicing opposition to the groundwater fee rate.

If that doesn’t entice the district board to reduce its rates, King is prepared to use legislative pressure.

“It is my sincere hope that the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District will take a new direction without the need for any legislative action,” he said. “However, if necessary, I am prepared to pursue a legislative remedy when the legislature reconvenes this January.”

Citizen comments can be mailed to the Office of the County Judge, One Courthouse Square, Weatherford Texas, 76080.
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