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Grizzly Flats fire victims argue base rate fees are illegal

Apr 07, 2023

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GRIZZLY FLATS, Calif. — There's an uneasy quiet that fills the air as heat rises from the winding asphalt running through the leveled neighborhoods of Grizzly Flats.

"This was considered an oasis that few people knew about," said Rick Hall, a former resident who lost his home to the Caldor Fire. "It's devastating. My wife doesn't even want to come up here."

Hall's home was among more than 600 destroyed by the Caldor Fire summer of 2021. He still gets emotional as he looks out to the mostly barren plots of dirt, framed by scorched and blackened trees of a canopy that once shaded his home.

"It's just not a pretty sight anymore. It's not a pleasant place to be but, it's our home," he said.

It's been more than a year since the Caldor Fire ripped through the El Dorado County community of Grizzly Flats. Some families have moved. Others are financially unable to rebuild. Hall said he's still working through his options.

With his home wiped out, you can imagine his surprise when he received this bill in the mail for $68.97. That's the existing monthly base rate charge for water services through the Grizzly Flats Community Services District or GFSCDD. To be specific, this charge is not for water volume, but for a water service connection. That's where this dispute lies.

According to the special district's ordinances, "the base rate is charged to all customers who have a service connection and is determined by the district's fixed costs."

The board voted to resume regular billing in late April for customers who still have operating service connections to potable water. Eighty customers whose meters were destroyed are not getting a charge for everyone else, the base rate is the same, whether they lost their home or not. officials say the fees are required to maintain the water infrastructure and rights, plus operations.

Pulling up a concrete slab to show his water meter under half a foot of dirt, Hall said when he turns it one, there is no water. He also points out that there is no pipe running to the foundation area where his home once stood.

After the initial publication of this report, officials at GFSCD clarified why Hall may not have seen water running.

"When the fire came through, we had to close curb stops at each location where homes burned down, to stop the water from flooding out where the pipes used to enter the residence. We can send out a technician to open the curb stop (District's side of the meter) and close the gate valve (customer side of the meter) so that water is available for use when they need it. The customer just needs to contact our office with that request. But to be clear, both customers have access and are being billed accordingly," officials said in a statement. "It's also important to note that, due to liability reasons, the District does not perform work on the customer's side of the meter. That is the responsibility of the property owner. For example, if a property owner would like a hose bib installed, they would need to hire a plumber to complete the work."After ABC10's initial interview with Hall, he confirmed GFSCD gave him an update with photos that his water meter connection had access to potable water. Still, Hall said it doesn't change the fact he believes he's being charged for a service he does not need. He further added, it did not make sense to him that he was getting charged for access to water, but still had to request access to water.

Hall is among fire victims on the hook for as long as they own their property. Their water lines are dry- but it's still draining their bank accounts. In complaint letters to the board in August, customers described heartbreak and dismay after receiving bills.

"Everything about this decision felt cold, unjust, and uncaring," said M. O’Bryon. (Their first name was redacted from the meeting's minutes.)

"You are punishing all who lost everything" and "payment is being made under duress and forced!!!" said one senior citizen on a fixed income. They wrote their letter on a small piece of legal notepad paper.

Mary and Sean Holte lost their full-time Grizzly Flats home to the fire. The fire was so hot it melted the block engine of the car they left in the driveway when they evacuated with anything they could fit in two cars. The rest of their belongings were reduced to ash.

"We feel horrible about what happened there, but we're having to move on with our lives," the Holtes said.

They say they feel a sense of conflict having to leave the tight-knit community, knowing even those whose homes were spared also have a difficult recovery and need stable water infrastructure. However, they believe it is illegal for them to be charged a base rate.

"We do not need the service, but we're forced to pay it because we used to," said Sean Holte. "That doesn't make any sense."

Fortunate to have insurance, the Holtes moved to Florida, but they’re stuck with the burned-out property and the water bill that comes with it.

"I asked them to remove the meter. I never really got a response back from that."

ABC10 reached out to the GFCSD board and got an explanation. The short answer is no.

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In a mid-May vote, the board decided property owners could not disconnect their water service connection.

Officials said they, "cannot make any decision that would put the district in further jeopardy."

When regular billing resumed in April, documents show — lots of people didn't pay up. The district received less than half of the billing revenue they were expecting. As of March, the district's post-fire income was down 60% and expenses were down only 20%. As of June, documents show a 30%.

The headaches for fire survivors don't end there. If they refuse or simply can't pay the bill for their water service connection, they can face late fees and even tax liens on their property.

Hall and the Holtes say a less desirable option for them would be to sell at a huge loss. While district officials say maintaining the water meter would also add value to property values, property owners argue it becomes less attractive to buyers who will be stuck with a nearly $70 a month bill until new owners are ready to build.

"I’m not going to pay my water bill; I don't have it. I don't need it. I don't want it. Take it out," said Hall.

Hall said he's ready to take this dispute to court to fight for a fair solution that takes into consideration input from community members who lost their homes. Hall is refusing to pay his water bill balance and said in the next month or so when a tax lien is placed on his property, he will be seeking representation and filing for an injunction.

"They [GFSCD] saw this trainwreck coming and didn't address it with the community, I feel, in the proper way," Hall said.

District officials said the board is looking for alternatives for how to structure base charges for those who have lost their homes, but in a statement say, "We must continue to charge customers what it costs us to provide water service, in accordance with Proposition 218."

Prop 218 is a state law that was approved in 1996. It restricts property-related fees. In short, any new taxes and charges on property owners are subject to voter approval and must go through a cost-justification study.

However, in the same text, Prop 218 specifies that "no property-related fee may be imposed for a service not used by, or immediately available to, the property owner."

Hall and the Holtes say they believe the charges they face are illegal and the district should have done a new cost study from the onset of recovery to save the community from added heartache and potential legal fees.

The dispute puts all stakeholders in difficult positions. Property owners who lost their homes and who were spared are on a challenging path of recovery.

Half of the board's staff also lost their homes to the Caldor Fire as they work to rebuild and maintain the stability of the community's infrastructure.

Should the GFCSD fail to recoup its billing losses, it would become insolvent. Should it get to that point, district officials said its options would be to consolidate with another water district or form a new one. That would be a process that loops in El Dorado County and the Local Agency Formation Commission.

On Sept. 8, the board will have its first regular in-person meeting since the fire, and neighbors who can be present say they will make sure their voices are heard.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with clarifying statements from the Grizzly Flats Community Services to closed curb stops and its process to turn on water for properties.

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