Council expresses concern on water, power issues

While two issues on the Mesquite City Council agenda at the Dec. 12 meeting may have appeared to be outside council control, they had everything to do with the city itself.

First was a presentation about the Virgin Valley Water District’s ongoing struggle to win a right of way to its water resources in the now-proclaimed Gold Butte National Monument.

Second, was a newly adopted policy by the Overton Power District to apparently demand upfront payments on electric bills by renters.

Mayor Al Litman addressed the conundrum in his mayoral remarks saying that the city wasn’t responsible for either issue and doubted that either one should have been on the agenda.

He was immediately rebuked by Councilmen George Rapson and Dave Ballweg, who placed the items on the agenda to increase public awareness.

“I, for one, am thrilled to be able to have input and inform the public on these issues,” Rapson said. “Water itself, greatly impacts the city of Mesquite and its future. It’s absolutely relevant to have these items on the agenda and have these discussions.”

Ballweg said, “I brought these issues forward for public information. I’m not sure why we’re so scared of information. Our community depends on these services.”

VVWD General Manager Kevin Brown told the council that attempts to secure rights of way access to 2,100-acre feet of water the district owns in the monument have bogged down since 2012 when applications were first submitted to the Bureau of Land Management.

Lee Kirk, acting Gold Butte monument manager, explained to the water district in October that “the Presidential Proclamation that created the Gold Butte Monument excluded any new rights-of-way (ROW) from being authorized unless the ROW benefitted the objects of the monument. Only existing authorizations would be able to be modified, amended or improved. The monument proclamation specifically protects granted water rights, but does not include language that would allow development to reach the water rights.”

Attempts to redraw the monument boundaries to exclude approximately 25 square miles that contain the water resources out of a total of 464 square miles have been criticized by monument proponents, primarily Friends of Gold Butte (FoGB).

Jaina Moan, executive director of FoGB, told the council that changing the boundary would create a “scar on the community” from negative publicity and she was confident a solution will be found to the quandary.

Rapson questioned Moan’s claim about potential damage of moving the boundary, ultimately saying, “the real scar on this community will be not having any water in 20 years.”

Ballweg pointed out that Lincoln County Water District experienced the same problem with access to its water rights inside the Basin and Range National Monument in that they retained their rights but have been prevented from accessing them.

Wade Poulsen, LCWD general manager, told the council that he and others tried to include language in the BRNM resource management plan that would allow access to the district’s water rights, but the BLM has ignored all of their requests.

“We were promised that we would have rights-of-way,” Poulsen said. “We don’t have them. Much like what’s happening to you now, is the same thing that happened to us.”

As discussions began about a new policy requiring renters to pre-pay electric bills, Ballweg noted that OPD’s Board of Directors recently adopted the new rules but hadn’t held any public input meetings beforehand.

Ballweg said he understood that if a power customer did not own their own property, they would have to use a so-called pre-pay meter and pay for electricity ahead of time. Property owners would continue under the current policy of paying for electrical use after-the-fact.

The pre-pay policy will require customers to use a smartphone app or website to deposit money ahead of time into their OPD account. Failure to do so will cause a computer to cut off their power at a certain point without intervention by OPD employees.

Ballweg said he’s concerned about older people and poorer people who may not have a smartphone or computer that would allow them to deposit adequate funds before they lost power.

Mendis Cooper, OPD general manager, told the council that while OPD has approved the policy it will not be implemented until late spring 2018.

He said the policy adoption stemmed from his discussions with rental property managers and landlords who end up being responsible for electric bills of people who have left their rental units without paying.

“Passing this policy gives OPD staff the ability to begin working on these changes. It’s not the end, it’s just the beginning,” Cooper said. “I anticipate that there will be changes and adjustments as we go forward. We just didn’t put them in initially because we want to see how this works.”

He said that OPD will be sending out newsletters to customers over the next six months regarding the changes.

In addition to Ballweg and Rapson expressing deep concerns about the policy change, Councilman Brian Wursten also said he was troubled by the impact the new system would have on lower income renters. “I am surprised you passed this policy before you had all the pieces in place,” Wursten told Cooper. “I hope you’ll take a strong look at this. I deal with a lot of poor families with kids. I can see these people getting their power turned off in the middle of the night because they don’t know exactly where they are in their metering. This is very disconcerting to me.”

No action was taken on either issue as they were informational agenda items only.

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