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Vitriolic Crowd Doesn’t Sway Otay Water District Board; Controversial Benefits Plan Approved

The board passed a proposal for “lifetime health care” for its employees with a 4-1 vote, with only Mark Robak dissenting.

Contention, anger, bitterness and anxiety ruled the day Wednesday at the monthly board meeting for the , as more than 100 ratepayers showed up in opposition of the district’s proposed enhanced benefits package.

And in the end, despite 21 people speaking out against the plan, and dozens more hemming and hawing from the tiny boardroom overflowing with constituents, the plan passed anyway.

The district’s plan calls for lifetime benefits for its employees, which, in a time when many other public agencies are tightening their belts, angered the ratepayers.

As per the agenda, after about five minutes, the board left the boardroom for a closed session and left those in attendance waiting for 51 minutes. During that time, the incensed crowd began shouting various phrases, including “Recall! Recall!” and “Stop hiding! Stop hiding!” among other things. When the board returned to a chorus of boos, one man in the crowd shouted, “Yeah, we’re still here! You can’t ignore us.”

An actuary firm made a presentation to the board about the makeup of the proposal—which calls for employees to defer a cost of living allowances (COLA) and to transfer that to a retiree benefits fund, despite being granted an already-negotiated 7 percent COLA for the next two years. Then the public was given a chance to have its say.

And did they ever. One after another, they stepped up and chided the board for its audacity, and demanded an explanation amid growing frustration.

Retired Mount Helix resident Bob Cederdahl said to the board, “Lifetime health care should never have been proposed. People are out there losing their homes, losing their businesses. We don’t get a cost of living with Social Security. Why would you give it to your employees? Please, for a change, act in our best interest. You’re here to serve us, not the other way around.”

Mark Smith, from Spring Valley, said that since the district is a monopoly and customers can’t get their water from anyone else, it is the district’s responsibility to look out for the ratepayer.

“The costs (of the enhanced benefits) are passed down to the ratepayer, and they’ll eventually pay it because they have to,” said Smith. “You hide it in the numbers.”

Ratepayer John Smith was more direct.

“You’ve dazzled us with your footwork, your slides and presentations. But there’s an old saying: Figures don’t lie. Liars figure,” he said.

The outrage of the ratepayers was exacerbated by a pre-meeting press conference, held by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Lani Lutar and Chris Cate of the SDCTA also spoke during the public session. They noted a large discrepancy between the figures that the actuary presented to the board and their own calculations.

The SDCTA says that the increased contributions to the pension costs that district employers will be required to pay (full 8 percent, up from 1 percent) will cover only the pension, not the cost of the lifetime health care. Cate presented slides that showed that the unfunded liability for unrepresented employees will be $1.7 million in 15 years, and the unfunded liability for represented employees will be $3.35 million in 20 years.

“Where’d you get your numbers from?” asked Cate. “You ran into someone who knows how to read this stuff, and you got caught red-handed.”

The district claims that the proposal will be of no cost to the ratepayer, as the deferred COLA will make up for the cost of retiree health benefits and will be covered solely by the employee.

After the public comments, each board member was given time to respond. Mark Robak, the only board member who voted against the proposal on July 15, said that given the discrepancy in the data presented, he was “as unclear as ever as to what the facts are.”

“I think it makes a lot of sense to have an open-ended analysis, to get some unbiased opinion on it,” Robak said. “There doesn’t seem to be a set of common facts.”

In the end, his words mattered little, as the motion to accept was made by board member David Gonzalez, seconded by Gary Croucher, and voted upon. It passed 4-1, with Robak the lone dissenting vote.

As the disgusted hoard of ratepayers filed out of the boardroom, shouts of “Recall!” were heard, with one man crying out, “Your days are numbered.”

The Otay Water District provides water service to customers within 125.5 square miles of southeastern San Diego County, California. Its facilities serve the water, recycled water, and the sewer needs of customers residing in the communities of Spring Valley, La Presa, Rancho San Diego, Jamul, eastern Chula Vista, and eastern Otay Mesa along the international border with Mexico.

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