Lewis Griswold

Griswold: Proposed water rate hike fuels Visalia takeover talk

Former Assembly Member Bill Maze, a Republican from Visalia, surprised the Visalia City Council by urging the city to use its eminent domain power to buy California Water Service's operation in Visalia.

"Let's look at taking out this whole industry here in Visalia," Maze said. "Our destiny is in our hands."

Mayor Amy Shuklian's response: "Don't think we haven't thought about it."

But California Water Service would fight any takeover attempt, district manager Scott Bailey said.

The takeover talk, which surfaces about every 20 years, re-emerged because the city is fighting Cal Water's proposed 28.3% rate increase over three years.

The public will get a chance to weigh in on the rate hike proposal on May 15, when an official from the California Public Utilities Commission holds a public hearing at the Visalia Convention Center.

Cities have the legal authority to take over a utility if it's for a public purpose, Visalia City Attorney Alex Peltzer said.

"It's like a right of way or anything else," he said.

Cal Water said city officials are on record that the company does a good job for Visalia residents.

"They would have to prove we're not providing service to our customers in Visalia," Bailey said.

There's no formal proposal about a forced takeover, but Maze's bold statement at the microphone two weeks ago during a public comment period prompted discussion. "I think Mr. Maze brings up an intriguing point," Council Member Greg Collins said. "I think that's something we at least have to look into."

Council Member Steve Nelsen, who blasted the rate hike proposal as "outrageous," said the city has the skill to run its own water service.

Later, Council Member Warren Gubler said he would welcome a cost estimate on the idea.

"Private enterprise can almost always do it better," and a takeover would be a last resort move, Gubler said. But the size of the increase and what it would be used for -- more employees and cars at the corporate office, for instance -- "causes everyone's blood to boil," he said.

Bailey said there's a lot of misinformation about the proposed increase, such as that money would fund executive bonuses. "Cal Water does not pay executive bonuses, nor has it proposed to do so," he said.

Selma, served by Cal Water, is fighting a proposed 24.6% increase over three years.

Selma explored the takeover option several years ago, but dropped it after opposition emerged, City Manager D-B Heusser said.

LINDSAY UPDATE: The 1930s-era California Citrus Exchange Building in Lindsay was saved from the wrecking ball when the developer of a planned Dollar General store dropped the project.

Embree Asset Group told the city that it will find a different site in town for a store, city planner Bill Zigler said.

The building is worth saving for its historic value, said activists who fought the development.

There's still a "for sale" sign in front of the building.