Residents of Rainbow and Bonsall feel threatened by what they say is a hostile takeover attempt of their water district by the Fallbrook Public Utility District.
The mostly agricultural community of Rainbow, east of Fallbrook and next to I-15 (at the Riverside County line), and Bonsall, on Highway 76, has its own Rainbow Municipal Water District. The district has served the now 13,000 residents of Rainbow and Bonsall for over 70 years.
The seemingly aggressive attempt by the Fallbrook district to consolidate the Rainbow district into their operation started when both organizations held discussions over many months on forming a joint power agreement. The purpose of the agreement was to possibly share some operational, engineering, and staffing expenses, thus saving both districts money.
In a March 23 interview with the Reader, Rainbow boardmember Bob Lucy, owner of the large Del Rey Avocado Company (with groves in both water districts), said, “We wanted to make sure it [was] a good deal for our ratepayers and employees.”
So, the Rainbow district asked the Fallbrook district for more time in the agreement talks. The Fallbrook district said no to the extension request, and on March 6, the Rainbow district ceased discussions. Lucy said, “I was happy that Rainbow took a stand that looks out for the interest of farmers.”
One day after the meeting ended, said Lucy, the Fallbrook district filed a request to take over the Rainbow district with the Local Agency Formation Commission, a state-run entity that studies all boundary issues and disputes between government entities: cities, schools, and special districts.
Tom Kennedy, general manager of the Rainbow district, also interviewed on March 23, said the main issue in their dispute is that the Fallbrook district elects its directors at-large; they vote for a slate of candidates district-wide. Kennedy points out that when special districts do not have separate divisional voting districts, a powerful, money-backed group of special interests can control entire boards.
Kennedy points out that the same board of directors at the Fallbrook district has been seated for years, some members for decades, without challengers in the every-four-year election cycle.
“All sides have a right to be represented,” Kennedy added. As an example, he says Bonsall has large estate homes and a commercial area; compare that with Rainbow’s mostly greenhouse growers. Their water needs are different.
The consolidation of water districts may leave some Rainbow residents financially devastated. For example, residents of the age 55+ Oak Crest Estates mobile-home park. The park’s 105 owners hold a special-use permit from the California Water Quality Control Board for operation of their small sewer plant, installed in 1992. The Rainbow district manages the plant.
“If [the Fallbrook district] takes over, the park will lose its grandfathered status and have to re-permit and re-engineer its sewage system,” says park resident Jim Mauritz. The cost per homeowner is expected to be at least $10,000. “These people are on fixed incomes. Where are they going to get that kind of money?” questions Mauritz.
Kennedy says, unfortunately, the state-run Local Agency Formation Commission has the authority to decide if the Fallbrook district can gobble up the Rainbow district without a vote of the people. If the agency’s decision goes against Rainbow, the voters have only 21 days, to three months (the commission decides length of time) to file an appeal petition with signatures of 25 percent of the registered voters. Only then must the commission put the issue to a vote of the electorate.
But the campaigns have already started. The Falbrook district runs full-page ads in the Village News newspaper claiming the Rainbow district is wasting ratepayers’ money by fighting Fallbrook.
On Rainbow’s side, reportedly 1000 letters have been received by commission staff from Rainbow and Bonsall residents, supporting the retention of the Rainbow district. Maritz says he knows 80 of those letters are from neighbors in his park. Rainbow residents have also posted a preemptive website, saynotoFPUD.org. Yard signs will be going up shortly. And Rainbow supporters seem to have made FPUD a dirty word — pronouncing it as “F-Pud.”
While this looks like a case of David and Goliath, in actuality, the Rainbow district delivers 50 percent more water than the Fallbrook district, says Kennedy, mainly because of its heavy agricultural use. The district also covers a larger land area — 75 square miles — to Fallbrook’s 35 square miles.
“We can’t figure out what’s behind this,” says Kennedy. He speculates it must be that the Fallbrook district wants more control of the still unincorporated Fallbrook area. Under state law, a “public utility district” such as Fallbrook’s can provide other services. “They can operate golf courses, swimming pools, fix roads, almost anything other than a policing agency or land-use planning,” said Kennedy. Rainbow’s “municipal water district” is limited to only providing water and sewer service.
Rainbow boardmember Lucy stated his district has great employees and that all facets of the Rainbow/Bonsall community are well represented in future water planning. “Our current revenue and water-delivery effectiveness is good for at least another five to ten years,” he says.
Situated on Old Highway 395, Rainbow Oaks is three businesses that make up the “town” of Rainbow. One worker, who did not want his name used, said, “The Fallbrook district is a bunch a good ol’ boys that still think bigger is better. We don’t want that kind of thinking around here.”
(corrected 3/31, 10:50 a.m.)