By Douglas W. Motley
Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church Pastor Randy Buecheler and about a dozen members of his congregation showed up at the March 5 board of directors meeting at the Crestline-Lake Arrowhead Water Agency (CLAWA) to request a reduction in a recent hike in the church’s fire hydrant standby fee. That fee had been raised from $25 a month to $485 a month, an increase of 1,856 percent.
In presenting his case to the CLAWA board, Rev. Buecheler stated, “The company hired to put together the rate system has designed a billing system that will first of all wound our church’s ability to do ministry on the mountain, then put our preschool out of business in 10 to 12 years and, finally, force the church to close within 15 years.”
When Buecheler asked whether there is a limit to what CLAWA can charge for its fire hydrant fee, CLAWA board President Bruce Risher pointed out that the agency hadn’t raised its fee in the past 26 years.
“Across the country, utility rates are going up 6 percent a year. We’re up against a wall here, we waited a long time before raising our fee, and you were paying less for a long time. You should take that into consideration,” Risher said, adding, “When the fire department uses the hydrant, you are not charged.”
Buecheler told The Alpine Mountaineer he believes part of the problem is an eight-inch-diameter water pipe feeding into the hydrant, which was required when the church added a preschool on its Crest Park property several years ago. He believes a smaller six-inch-diameter pipe would be more suitable. He said he would soon be meeting with a County Fire chief to find out if a smaller pipe could be approved, or whether the fire hydrant could be removed and placed elsewhere.
“You guys won’t help me at all,” Buecheler told board members, “I’m asking the fire department to remove the hydrant. If you keep raising the fee 6 percent every year, I’m going to go bankrupt.”
Noting that energy costs are continuing upward, CLAWA Director Kenneth Eaton said he sympathizes with the church. “I’m shocked by the amount. It’s a Catch-22 and I don’t have an answer.”
According to Risher, the agency has been losing revenue for years. “We look at the budget every year, but I doubt it will go down,” he said.
Citing the rising cost of repairing and replacing aging equipment and pipes, CLAWA General Manager Roxane Holmes said, “We looked at rates to see what’s fair. It cost $200,000 to replace pumps at Silverwood Lake. If we don’t fix and replace equipment, the fire department won’t get water.”
“With money taken away from our donations, it will be a real struggle to keep our preschool open,” Buecheler said. Also offering sympathy for the church’s struggle, CLAWA Director Stephen Pleasant said, “I marvel at how we stay afloat when our pipes need to be replaced, but I’m still shocked and sympathetic with you.”
Risher added, “If everybody who asked for a break got one, it wouldn’t be fair to our other customers. Everybody pays the same – that’s what is equitable.”
In the end, CLAWA wouldn’t budge. Board members approved the meeting agenda, which included the 1,856-percent fire hydrant fee increase.