Debate over old pipes could bring new faces to utility district board
How the South Tahoe Public Utility District communicates with the public and how it spends its money are two of the major campaign themes ahead of the Nov. 6 elections for three district board seats.
On the monetary side, the replacement of 185,000 feet of undersized water lines from the World War II era likely is the largest task elected board members will be asked to direct over their four-year terms.
Updating the lines will take about 15 years and cost upward of $55 million, according to Dennis Cocking, spokesman for STPUD.
“It’s a big challenge,” Cocking said Tuesday. “It’s probably unrealistic to expect to do that without rate increases. It’s not fair to shift that responsibility to my children and my children’s children when I’ve had the use of it my entire life.”
While none of the candidates have ruled out rate increases categorically, they have all weighed in on the current state of the board and how they will help guide the district’s future.
Seat 1: Julie Threewit vs. Ernie Claudio
The race for Seat 1 on the STPUD board pits two newcomers against each other.
Threewit, president and chief executive officer of an Internet-based business management company, sees her business experience as preparing her for the board.
“I like to pride myself in having grace under pressure and not making emotional decisions,” Threewit said during a phone interview last week.
Threewit sees a long-term payoff from investments made today.
“I believe in planning for the future and not being caught by surprise,” she said. “Where we can be proactive, that will save us in the future. Putting things off is not always the better choice.”
Similarly, Claudio, a photographer who worked for 11 years at the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant, sees incremental rate increases as the most appropriate way to upgrade the district’s aging hodgepodge of once privately owned water lines.
He finds a recent proposal by North Tahoe Public Utility District to raise water rates by more than 50 percent and more than double sewer rates to be particularly egregious.
Ultimately, he sees the spot on the board being used for improving communication between the district and the community.
“Here’s my take on the whole thing: The district is doing a great job, except for one thing: They’re not communicating with the ratepayers, and the end result is people are upset with them,” Claudio said. “There are people who think that the district is spending money they shouldn’t spend.”
Seat 3: Mary Lou Mosbacher vs. John Runnels
Vying for her fifth elected term to the board, Mary Lou Mosbacher faces South Lake Tahoe automotive shop owner John Runnels for Seat 3 on the district’s board seat.
Mosbacher sees her experience on the board working to her advantage as STPUD proceeds with infrastructure improvement projects. A self-described “eduholic,” Mosbacher says she is prepared to make the proper time commitment necessary to understand any new issues that may face the district.
“I ask a lot of questions before I make a decision,” Mosbacher said. “I’m not competitive; just give me the work.”
Mosbacher’s opponent, John Runnels, has been an outspoken critic of the current board throughout the race and has based his campaign on being a candidate for the locals.
“Basically, as far as staff on down, (STPUD is) functioning well,” Runnels said. “I think the problems are with the board and the fact that they’re out of touch.”
Cocking has said a 1984 decision transferring responsibility for sewer laterals from the district to property owners was a way to keep the bulk of ratepayers from being held accountable for an individual property owner’s problem.
Runnels has said the change in responsibility leaves property owners open to tens of thousand of dollars of liability that ultimately should be the district’s responsibility.
“I believe the board has made decisions that have affected the ability of people to live and survive on the South Shore,” Runnels said. “Nobody on these boards or in government seems to realize the profound effect they have.”
Seat 4: Duane Wallace vs. Dale Rise
The Seat 4 race between four-term incumbent Duane Wallace and newcomer Dale Rise has revealed the widest difference between candidate positions in the STPUD board race.
Wallace has championed his “big-picture” approach and ability to raise federal funding for local projects, while Rise, a licensed excavator, has stuck to his position as being closely tied to the “people in the orange shirts.”
“What I’ve done is go after Washington, and that has been quite successful,” Wallace said. “We’re working through Feinstein, Reid, Doolittle – all of our representatives – to get federal funding.”
“I’m trying to be one of those guys in office who doesn’t leave office worse then it was when I started,” Wallace added.
Rise has pledged to examine previous board decisions, including the transfer of sewer lateral responsibility.
“Right now, the board of directors pretty much does what management wants,” Rise said. “It’s the working people in this community that are ready for change.”
Like Claudio, Rise has promoted the idea of increased communication with the ratepayers and sees televising utility district board meetings as the way to do it. “It’s like a little secretive club, and that’s wrong,” Rise said. “I want to make sure the general public knows what the changes are going to be.”