Western Municipal Water District considers spinning off part of Murrieta’s water service area

Former Murrieta County Water District board of directors member Mike Madison addresses attendees at Wednesday night’s Western Municipal Water District meeting, held at the Murrieta Community Center. Will Fritz photo
Former Murrieta County Water District board of directors member Mike Madison addresses attendees at Wednesday night’s Western Municipal Water District meeting, held at the Murrieta Community Center. Will Fritz photo

Western Municipal Water District held an informational meeting at the Murrieta Community Center Wednesday, July 26, on a proposal to split off its Murrieta customers to a different water district.

The agency has begun studying proposals to spin off its Murrieta section, which was previously the Murrieta County Water District until Western Municipal Water District acquired it in 2005. The section covers the partially undeveloped central portion of Murrieta, including downtown.

Should the section be unloaded onto another district, the most likely suitor is Rancho California Water District, which covers most of Temecula as well as parts of Murrieta and – most importantly – already has water lines running through the former county water district.

Another possibility is the nearby Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District, which serves much of Lake Elsinore and Wildomar.

Also included in the potential spinoff are two small sections just north of the San Diego county line.

General Manager John Rossi said the primary aspect of the proposal is to keep costs lower for customers.

“I mean there aren’t many agencies that reduce them, right, but one of the main analyses we looked at suggested there’s a 15-20 percent gap, and some of the other agencies have lower rates than ours,” Rossi said.

Another concern for the district is how to pay for needed upgrades in Murrieta. Much of the service area is undeveloped with few connections, even though Rancho California Water District already has its own lines running through the area. Rossi said Western Municipal Water District is very careful to make sure money for new development is not paid for by existing customers.

Rossi also said funds from Murrieta ratepayers stay in Murrieta, but that means the Murrieta portion of the district is left in much the same position as the Murrieta County Water District – small and without enough funds to pay for upgrades.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you, the water district, just put the water line right in?’ Well, it’s not my money; it’s a government agency,” Rossi said. “We don’t have large reserves sitting around. In fact, there’s been very little growth in Murrieta since the recession. So there’s not funds sitting around to build these things.”

The low number of Murrieta customers makes it hard to keep rates economical, Rossi said.

“So, could this be added into a larger district that has maybe 30,000 connections, or 40,000? That might provide some opportunity, and it might not,” Rossi said.

Some residents who spoke during the meeting’s public comment session said they had few complaints about Western Municipal Water District. Others advocated moving to another district.

Former Murrieta city councilman Warnie Enochs, who lost re-election in 2008 after being arrested for multiple felonies, spoke during the meeting. Enochs said he had concerns about rate increases when Western Municipal Water District initially moved to acquire Murrieta County Water District in 2005.

“Your answers to me were, ‘No, we’ve got a bigger area to draw from so that the water rates won’t go up,’” he said.

Back in 2005, Enochs said the thought was that since Western Municipal Water District was a much larger district than Murrieta County Water District, they had the resources to keep up with development in Murrieta. But since the recession, there’s been little growth in the Murrieta service area, and there’s been little in the way of service improvements, either.

“Now, you’ve done another study I guess, and now it doesn’t pay and nothing’s really changed other than our rates have gone up,” Enochs said.

Murrieta Mayor Rick Gibbs and Mayor Pro-Tem Jonathan Ingram were also present at the meeting, though neither spoke publicly.

Water district customer Jessica Hales said the gap in fee costs between Western Municipal Water District and other water districts is much larger than the 20 percent mentioned by Rossi.

“I’m paying 45 percent more for my service, I’m paying 28 percent more for my sewer and I’m paying 18 percent more per unit of water usage,” she said. “So before I even use a drop of water, I’m spending $70 a month.”

Mike Madison, a former member of the Murrieta County Water District board of directors, questioned what Western Municipal Water District has been doing since it took over the now-defunct county water district.

“We did three general plans, and we were working on the fourth when we turned it over to (Western),” Madison said. “How many general plans have you done?”

Whatever residents’ concerns are, they will have plenty more opportunities to get them across. Wednesday’s meeting was only the first step in the direction of spinning off the Murrieta portion to another district, and nothing is set in stone yet. Another meeting is planned soon, possibly at Murrieta City Hall. No date has been set.

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