Mellen subdivision water board facing recall effort

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Members of a local taxing district currently face recall elections early next year after its former board members filed petitions with the Elmore County Courthouse.

Paperwork filed Oct. 15 focused on the board of directors with the Mellen Subdivision Water District, who oversee a community well that serves a roughly eight-block area on the city's west side.

The recall focused specifically on the district's current board, which includes chairwoman Angelena Morrison along with Tiffany Belt, Norma Meyers, Davis French and Sarah Miller.

However, the petition for Meyers was rejected by the county elections office because the form lists the wrong name. According to county elections officer Vivian Garcia, that recall petition needs to be completely redone for Meyers to face a recall vote.

Each of the petitions were filed by Bart Eben, Ron Hazuka, Janet Donahue and Art Vagt, who served on the district board prior to a mandatory election in 2009 involving each of the board's five seats. These four individuals were previously under investigation by the Elmore County Sheriff's Department for failing to comply with Idaho statutes.

According to Deputy Clint Andrus from the sheriff's department, allegations surfaced that those former board members were not holding actual elections as required under state law. Essentially, the board operated under the "good old boys syndrome" where people were invited to join the board versus going through the actual election process, Andrus said.

In addition, the former board was accused of violating other state mandates, including the need to maintain a full set of bylaws. However, no charges were ever filed since the statue of limitations had already expired on those allegations, the detective said.

The petitions filed this month list three primary reasons for the recall election. Among them were accusations that the current board is mismanaging the district's funds and its water system.

But according to Lori Kane, who serves as the district's secretary, the district's water system was already experiencing critical breakdowns years before the new board was seated in January 2010.

"From 2001 to 2013 there have been seven major pump or motor failures costing over $107,000," Kane said.

Despite having to replace the well pump or motor every two years on average, the previous board never established an equipment replacement fund or increased its monthly fees, Kane added.

The newly elected board dealt with its first major problem when its well went offline in August 2011. It took nearly two months to troubleshoot the underlying cause of the equipment failure, which was linked to electrical problems.

Paying more than $20,000 to make those repairs, the board passed a measure in November 2011 to increase monthly water rates by 4.9 percent. That averaged out to roughly 69 cents per customer.

It was the first time in the district's history that its monthly rates were ever increased, Morrison said.

Problems at the well continued with another major breakdown in April of this year that cost another $18,000 to fix and required the district to receive emergency water from the city for several weeks. After that equipment failure, the board voted to increase its customer water rates to $65 per month.

The recall petitions argue that the water rate increase is unrealistic and that many people in the district will be unable to pay that amount.

While acknowledging the rate hike was significant, Morrison emphasized that the previous board never increased its rates to keep pace with the growing community nor did it set money aside to maintain the system.

In short, Morrison emphasized the district is working on "borrowed time" with regards to its current well.

"If that pump and motor don't make it, there's no money to replace them," she said. Since 2001, the district has burned through $107,000 to fix the same equipment.

What also troubled Morrison is the district knew the well pump and motor had limitations when they were installed 20 years ago. Referring to a published report filed by the water district, the engineer that installed the original equipment knew the system would be prone to starting and stopping without warning.

"The type of motor system we will have will make the well kick on and off and may wear out quite soon. It would be a good idea if we could have a backup pump handy at all times," the report stated.

The district has no backup pump, Morrison said.

Looking for possible solutions, the current board plans to apply for a grant through Idaho Power to help subsidize the cost to make needed equipment repairs while hoping to secure additional grants to help with its long-term financial concerns, Kane added.

Meanwhile, the recall petitions argue that a conflict of interest exists between Morrison and Kane, stating that both are friends. However, a copy of the recall petition obtained by the Mountain Home News shows that Hazuka, a former board member, and Donahue, who served as the former board secretary and treasurer, live at the same address within the district.

The recall election will be a first for the district after each of the board's five seats were vacated for failing to comply with state statues. Immediately after the newly elected board was seated in 2010, Donahue and long-time representative Tom Horgan resigned their seats. Since then, the district has held two elections.

Horgan had served on the board since the district formed in 1991.

According to Morrison, the new board has spent the past three years getting the district back into compliance.

"Everything was kind of handed to us," Morrison said. "Nobody sat down and trained us.

With no "institutional memory" passed down from the former board members, it's taken time for the current board to piece together and organize years of records and invoices.

"A lot of stuff wasn't in order," Morrison said. "It wasn't easy just to grab a stack of (meeting) minutes and go through them and figure them out."

In fact, the board is still searching for records from some of those early meetings.

It was hard for the new board to determine, for example, whether the district was following requirements established and enforced by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

Morrison said that Eben tried to stop her from contacting the state for help.

"I was told not to call those regulatory agencies or else we would be put on their radar," she said. "But I didn't have a choice because the old board members would not talk to us."

However, she did contact both organizations so the district could figure out its responsibilities and to ensure it complied with state law. The state agencies had no issues with the district as long as the board kept them updated on their progress, she said.

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