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Ruling OKs Pajaro Valley water fees

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel
11/18/2011

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/localnews/ci_19366808

SANTA CRUZ - Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann threw out most challenges to Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency fees in a tentative ruling Friday.

But a question of whether any agency board members - a majority of whom represent the agricultural community and could benefit from water projects - had a conflict of interest that would disqualify them from approving the fees remains unresolved, and the hearing was continued until Monday.

The decision is critical to the survival of the agency charged with shoring up a groundwater deficit. A loss would strip the agency of some or all of its funding.

General Manager Mary Bannister expressed relief at the direction of the court.

"Now I hope we can spend our money on balancing the basin because we have important work to do," she said.

Friday's action came in response to two lawsuits filed in 2010, one by tax watchdog Harold Griffith and a second by a group of Pajaro Valley property owners. The lawsuits were subsequently consolidated.

The lawsuits challenged an $18 to $20 management fee imposed in 1993, an $80 charge on pumping groundwater from private wells and a second pumping fee approved in 2010.

The $80 charge, imposed in 2002, was replaced by the 2010 fee.

Volkmann applied the concept of laches, which requires plaintiffs to make timely protests, to discount claims against the management fee and the $80 pumping charge. He found procedures used to implement the 2010 fee complied with Proposition 218, a tax initiative passed by California voters in 1996.

The plaintiff's attorney, Robert Johnson, told the judge he disagreed "very strongly" with the ruling, and launched into a lengthy challenge. He said laches didn't apply because residents weren't informed a prior case didn't question the 2002 fee. He said it was an "absolute violation of due process."

And he questioned whether money collected from the fees was being spent appropriately. He asked, for example, whether treated wastewater blended with well water for irrigation is really "supplemental water," which the agency is authorized to provide.

Outside the courtroom, Griffith said he wasn't surprised by Volkmann's ruling since he's lost a dozen times in Superior Courts. But he said he's had better luck with higher courts, and would appeal if the decision stood.

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