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Bellflower Water Bills Skyrocket 

A Los Angeles suburb's water wars make the Kremlin look efficient

Wednesday, Feb 11 2009
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You could say Bellflower is obsessed with water. The town of 72,000 sandwiched between Lakewood and Downey claims four water companies and half a dozen stores that sell water supplies and water in bulk, including a Culligan outlet looking to hire two drinking-water consultants. Even the Latino Pentecostal Church is called Agua de Vida (Water of Life).

So it’s fitting that water is at the heart of a brewing battle against City Hall by a ragtag army of angry residents headed by the former host of Bellflower B.S., who expressed his opinion of city leaders on the defunct cable talk show by flushing a toilet on the set.

The group is rallying residents who saw their water rates skyrocket after the city bought the water company that serviced a patchwork of 1,800 homes spread across the 6.2-square-mile suburb. The group hopes to win the two seats up for grabs during next month’s general election, then capture the other three seats in a special recall election later this year.

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“They really screwed over a bunch of people,” says John Butts, who owns a roofing company in town and hosted Bellflower B.S. for six years. “A lot of heads need to chop. A lot of things have to go away.”

One of those who joined the battle is Laurence Tallmadge, a 78-year-old retiree who lives with his wife in one of the eight small areas serviced by the new City of Bellflower Municipal Water System. After the council voted to buy the deteriorating half-century-old system from the Peerless Water Company for $5.8 million two years ago, Tallmadge saw his bimonthly water bill nearly double. His water bill shot up from $79.76 in June 2007 to $142.81 in August to pay for the council-approved $8 million bond that did not require voter support because it was less than $10 million. “What’s going on here?” Tallmadge recalls thinking. “What are we paying for?”

“We really got mad,” says Ken Glenn, a homeowner who is organizing the campaign to replace the council. “People who haven’t known each other for 20 years are talking.”

City officials say residents had long complained about Peerless, one of the nearly two-dozen small water companies that helped turn Bellflower, which once served as one of Southern California’s biggest milk-production centers, into a bustling suburb. At one council meeting, a resident set a glass of cloudy tap water on the podium and dared the council members to drink it.

“We had been receiving complaints for years,” says City Manager Michael Egan, “complaints about low water pressure, brown dirty water, poor response; it went on for years. The system is a mess. The old pump stations have corroded piping, some piping is completely clogged.”

So city officials say they heeded the residents’ call not to sell Peerless to an outside company, opting instead to condemn the system in order to take it over. The city has laid 1,000 feet of new pipe and plans to build a high-capacity well. It also has secured $1.3 million in federal grants under the Clean Water Act and hopes to get more under the Obama administration.

“We’re doing everything we can to fix the system and deliver high-quality water to the residents of the area,” Egan says. “We are in the process of rebuilding the system.” Yet he concedes the system is so badly shot it will “take 20 years.” The $5.8 million price tag, he says, was a good deal: “The greatest value [was] the water rights, which are tremendously valuable on the open market.”

But the 1,800 Peerless customers didn’t expect they’d have to pick up the entire tab and take the financial risks. What happens if fiscally stressed Bellflower goes bankrupt, like Vallejo? Will a lien be placed on homeowners and businesses in Bellflower to cover the $8 million bond voters themselves never got a chance to vote on? City officials insist no. And why can’t rate payers share in the ownership of the system they’re paying for, as do nearby residents serviced by some of Bellflower’s other water companies?

The jacked-up rates are also putting at risk those on a fixed income, opponents say. Although some may qualify for a low-income reduction, Bellflower requires that they provide copies of their financial and bank statements, which some don’t feel comfortable handing over to folks at highly politicized Bellflower City Hall, Butts says.

“One retired lady on a fixed income got a ticket for her dead lawn,” he huffs, adding, “Is she supposed to water her lawn and die of starvation?”

Butts’ group is backing challengers “Sonny” Santa Ines and John Laskowski in the March 3 race for two open council seats. They are simultaneously pursuing a recall campaign, intended for the ballot later in 2009, which targets longtime Mayor Randy Bomgaars and council members Raymond Dunton and Ray T. Smith, who has clung to office since the early years of the Vietnam War. Activists claim their recall effort is being improperly stalled by scheming city officials — and the facts at hand don’t flatter Bellflower City Hall. The paperwork required in order to circulate recall petitions was rejected by City Clerk Debra Bauchop — four times — over minor issues such as margins that were slightly off or a period that should have been a colon. Bauchop defends her decisions as “very technical,” but other cities give leeway for minor errors. “Every time we go, they say the ‘t’ is not crossed and the ‘i’ is not dotted,” Glenn says in disgust.

After the paperwork feud, the clerk informed them that a newspaper they paid $4,200 to run a legal notice of the recall is not allowed to run such notices under Bellflower law. (Indeed, no newspaper in Bellflower is approved for such notices.) The group was told to instead post a single notice at City Hall and two in public parks.

“We are resubmitting,” says Glenn. “It’s not going away, and there will be no corrections because the only thing we’re changing is the date.”

Bomgaars, Bellflower’s deeply entrenched five-term mayor, calls allegations that leaders meddled in the recall effort “political nonsense. There are a lot of allegations and political half-truths. The city clerk and city attorney made them follow election law.” He alleges that a recall election will cost taxpayers up to $300,000, but other suburbs typically hold such special elections for about $175,000.

Meanwhile, on fast-approaching election day on March 3, fed-up challengers Ines and Laskowski face two candidates with troubling personal links to Bellflower’s bizarre water wars.

Incumbent City Councilman Scott Larsen’s father sits on the board of the Bellflower-Somerset Mutual Water Co., the very firm that holds a lucrative contract to maintain the old Peerless system. Candidate Dan Koops sits on the same water board. City Manager Michael Egan believes that Larsen, if re-elected, can vote on matters related to the company despite his father’s involvement, while Koops, if elected, may have to resign from the water board or recuse himself.

“It’s a good-old-boys network, and it has been forever,” Butts says. “The city is scared to hell of us.”

Activists have other problems with the insiders at City Hall. Amid a city-budget crisis and despite soaring water bills for some residents, the city’s 98 full-time employees include 18 who are paid over $100,000 — more than twice the household median income of this L.A. suburb.

Bomgaars insists that these big salaries are common in small-town government and that city employees took a 12-day furlough recently to save money. “These are individuals who have resurfaced from the past,” complains Bomgaars. “They have tried to run several times and haven’t been successful.”

But former mayor Art Olivier, the Libertarian Party’s U.S. vice-presidential candidate in 2000, thinks there’s enough frustration to change the balance of power. “Two thousand voters can win a special election,” says Olivier. “It will be huge if they get it. They’ll change everything.”

Reach the writer at jorge.casuso@miaminewtimes.com

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