Legislative committee talks water company merger

City of Santa Clarita City Hall

Among other financially impactful decisions, the City Council Legislative Committee discussed the merger of two Santa Clarita water districts at their meeting Friday morning.

The committee is comprised of Mayor Cameron Smyth and Councilman Bob Kellar, as well as city Intergovernmental Relations Manager Mike Murphy.

Both the Newhall County Water District and the Castaic Lake Water Agency’s boards have voted in favor of merging their two companies.

The Castaic board voted a unanimous 10-0 and the Newhall board voted 4-1 to terminate both of their companies and create the Santa Clarita Valley Water District, in combination with the Santa Clarita Water District, which they own, and the Valencia Company.

Newhall County Water District’s Board President BJ Atkins said according to a financial analyst, the merger would save the Santa Clarita Valley $14 million over the course of 10 years, about $40 per household. There would be a seven percent decrease in staff members at the new district, but there would not be any immediate layoffs.

“We believe this is the right thing to do not just for the city, but for the region,” Atkins said. “This bill represents how it would be done if we could do it again, the right way.”

Newhall County Water District Director Lynne Plambeck was the only board member to oppose the bill. She said she did not think there was enough feedback from the community to make a decision.

“Sometimes minority voices have correct information,” Plambeck said about her vote. “You don’t have a buy-in from the customers of Newhall County Water District.”

General Manager of Newhall County Water District Stephen Cole said while having separate organizations worked in the past, it makes more sense to merge them now.

“We were in a different place,” Cole said. “History is a great informer, but we have to think about the future. We think there is a lot of value in that.”

Castaic Lake Water Agency’s General Manager Matt Stone said the merger is not a takeover, as elected representatives voted for it and public polling was conducted. According to Stone, 70 percent of the community is in support of the merger.

“I think the future service is what should be considered,” Stone said.

Councilman Kellar said he supports the bill and will relay that when it is revisited in a city council meeting.

“When we have this overwhelming support, I can’t help but think this is the right thing to do,” Kellar said. “I have the utmost appreciation and respect for both boards.”

Mayor Smyth said he appreciates the small town feel of having independent companies, but recognizes the merit to the merger and supported the bill.

There will be a senate committee hearing in regard to the merger on March 28, as well as a Santa Clarita City Council meeting the same day. Even if Senator Scott Wilk proposes amendments to the bill, representatives from both districts said they will continue to support the bill.

Also in the agenda, the legislative committee discussed Senate Bill 1. Authored by Senator Jim Beall, it proposes to increase and create new taxes and fees to fund state and local highway and road repairs.

The bill, which has passed in three senate committees already, would increase the price of gas, diesel and vehicle registration fees. The bill would create $6 billion in transportation funding, of which over $7 million would go to Santa Clarita annually.

“I absolutely strongly oppose this,” Kellar said. “It’s just another tax.”

Kellar and Smyth agreed to add the bill to the city council agenda for discussion. If the council chooses to oppose it, they will be the first council in California to do so. Senator Scott Wilk has not been on any committees regarding the bill and there are no recorded votes on the matter from Senator Henry Stern.

After proposition 64 passed in November legalizing recreational marijuana, Assemblyman Tom Lackey authored Assembly Bill 6, which will assemble a task force to develop recommendations for people driving under the influence of drugs, including marijuana and prescriptions.

Proposition 64 allocated for all funds needed for the task force, so no new money would be spent. Councilman Kellar and Mayor Smyth both supported the bill.

Currently, parts of Sierra Highway are under the control of the California Transportation Commission. Under Assemblyman Dante Acosta’s Bill 1172, Cal Trans would relinquish full control to the City of Santa Clarita to maintain the highway.

This would allow the whole city to work alongside one another in regards to repainting, repairing potholes and adjusting speed limits without having to coordinate with the state. Smyth and Kellar both supported the bill.

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