October 24, 2020

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Marin Municipal Water District candidates address funding, climate

7 min read
Candidates for Marin Municipal Water District, Division 2: top row from left, Mark Lubamersky and...

Candidates for Marin Municipal Water District, Division 2: top row from left, Mark Lubamersky and Monty Schmitt; and Division 5, bottom row from left, Larry Russell, left, and Chris Hobbs. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

Three first-time candidates and a 16-year incumbent are vying for two seats on the Marin Municipal Water District board in the November election.

Mark Lubamersky and Monty Schmitt are competing for the Division 2 seat vacated by Armando Quintero. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Quintero to state parks director in September.

Lubamersky, a San Rafael planning commissioner and high school teacher, said MMWD is a well-run utility, but it has transparency issues and fractured priorities among board members. He also said the district passes substantial rate increases rather than working within its means.

“I think it seems like they take their needs list and then they adjust the water rates to fill the needs of their desired programs,” Lubamersky said. “Maybe if they looked at their rate structure and seeing how much money they had in their budget and tailored their programs to that, it might be a little more helpful.”

Schmitt, a longtime watershed scientist and water project director with the Nature Conservancy, said he has a scientific background that is missing from the board, especially as the district faces drought, wildfire risk and climate change impacts.

“There is an urgency to what we’re doing, and we can’t have another decade of talking about the problem and identifying the problem or developing the plans about the problem,” Schmitt said. “We need to be doing all of those things but really need to be taking some very direct action quickly, in particular with respect to wildfire.”

Both candidates say the district’s wildfire resiliency plan must be completed, though Lubamersky argues it requires more specific actions. The district must have the “political will” to enact measures such as prescribed burns, Lubamersky said, and get residents who abut the district’s 22,000 acres of watershed land to create defensible space around their properties.

To prepare for future droughts, the district can’t rely on Sonoma Water purchases for the long term, Lubamersky said. Instead, the district should explore raising the height of dams at its reservoirs and promoting greater conservation, such as through the expansion of recycled water systems.

Coordination with other agencies and land managers is vital to successful fire prevention, Schmitt said. He said controlled burns in the watershed could be dangerous, considering the number of residences nearby. Other methods, such as forest thinning and vegetation control by goat grazing, could be implemented to take out invasive species, he said.

Reducing irrigation of outdoor landscaping and expanding recycled water, while expensive, will be critical to ensure the district maintains water supply during more frequent drought periods, Schmitt said.

Last year, MMWD approved controversial rate increases and a new capital maintenance fee to make cash payments rather than using bonds to pay for replacing aging pipes, storage tanks, treatment facilities and fund fire prevention efforts.

Lubamersky argues the district must approve its transparency with the public including holding longer nightly meetings rather than holding committee meetings during morning hours. With interest rates being so low, Lubamersky said it would be worth reevaluating the fee and instead potentially issuing new bonds to pay for projects.

“It seems like now might be the time to get some of those bonds and refinance some of those bonds,” he said.

On district staffing levels, Lubamersky said the district’s administrative staff seems “top-heavy” and that some positions “superfluous to the charge of supplying water” to ratepayers should be reassessed.

Greater conservation by residents and drought periods result in less water being sold, Schmitt said, and therefore less revenue to pay for needed repairs, replacement projects and staffing. The new fee works to address those revenue fluctuations, he said.

“The intent is to create some stability in the revenue that can allow for long-term planning, and I think that is good business,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said he would be uncomfortable with adding more bond debt that would be passed on to future generations, but it shouldn’t be ruled out entirely because of the low interest rates.

As for staffing, Schmitt said the question is whether the district is putting enough resources into the most important priorities.

“I think that our resource needs are going to shift,” Schmitt said, “and at the same time I think honestly that we probably are understaffed and not resourced correctly to really address things like wildfire and preparing for the drought.”

The district is also exploring allowing electronic bicycles on fire roads in the watershed. Lubamersky said he would support that proposal.

The board should continue broad outreach and use science to drive its decision, Schmitt said, especially as it relates to issues such as erosion which can impact water quality.

In the race for the Division 5 seat to represent Corte Madera, Larkspur, San Quentin, Strawberry, Tiburon and Belvedere, Chris Hobbs is challenging incumbent Larry Russell.

Hobbs, chief operating officer of PetHospice, said the board needs more of a ratepayers’ voice. The public backlash to the board’s rate increases and new capital maintenance fee in 2019 shows the board is not paying enough attention to the customers who are funding them, he said.

“The board is supposed to be that voice,” Hobbs said. “Staff are naturally inclined to want to do more, spend more; that’s properly their motivation. And the board basically should balance that.”

Russell, a longtime water quality engineer who has been on the board since 2004, said he provides critical technical expertise to the board that other members cannot.

“I like to think of myself as the people’s engineer,” Russell said. “I don’t come in with any preconceptions except for one, which is to produce the highest quality water at the lowest possible price.”

To address the watershed’s fire risks, Hobbs said the district must be more aggressive with funding fire prevention measures such as tree thinning and cutting fire breaks on the watershed.

“The district has a fire mitigation program but I believe it is not nearly as aggressive enough given that it sits next door to most of Marin’s population,” Hobbs said.

On droughts, Hobbs said MMWD should promoting greater conservation, artificial turf programs and utilizing modern meters for customers to provide real-time feedback on their water usage.

Russell said he supports undergrounding electrical lines on watershed lands. The district’s purchase of portable generators and a generator at its San Geronimo treatment plant will allow the district to continue delivering water during fires, power shutoffs and other major emergencies.

“I think we have our arms around it as well as we’re going to,” Russell said on the district’s fire prevention efforts. “The biggest problem with fire is the wildland-urban interface. The key there is they need to do their own policing and keep the vegetation away from their structures.”

The board has been proactive in its including earlier purchases water from Sonoma Water this year in anticipation of a potentially poor rainy season, Russell said.

While Hobbs said he understands the board adopted the capital maintenance fee to be fiscally prudent, he said its timing and methods were flawed, especially in regards to transparency.

“I don’t think there was enough consultation with and consideration of the ratepayers for how they chose to do it,” Hobbs said.

Cutting rates is not something Hobbs said he is promising as part of his campaign. The challenges facing the district, from fires to climate change impacts, are more complex, Hobbs said, but the board can redirect resources.

“I would like the district to see that additional work without additional spending,” Hobbs said.

The board has adopted low-income rate programs and delayed the recent rate and fee increases to January in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Russell said. He said he would be willing to extend the delay as needed, but acknowledged the increase in delinquent payments could begin to affect the district’s operating and project budgets.

“We worked really hard on the board to get district on sound financial standing and we have achieved that,” Russell said. “Our credit rating continues to improve and that, of course, is critical when we issue bonds.”

The new fee stops the district from relying on bonds solely for repair and replacement projects, which also come with debt that could be used for other improvements.

The district’s staffing levels are in “fine shape,” Russell said, and could be larger, especially in hiring more rangers to manage the watershed.

As for whether to allow e-bikes on fire roads, Russell said to “stay tuned,” as the board is still awaiting a staff report and recommendations following several community meetings.

Hobbs said he supports allowing e-bikes on fire roads as it provides access to people who might no longer be able to use traditional bicycles or hike.


MMWD candidates

Mark Lubamersky
Age: 58
Occupation: Teacher, coach
Education: Redwood High School; College of Marin; bachelor’s degree in geography, University of California at Berkeley; master’s degree in education administration, San Francisco State University
Experience: Former parks and recreation commissioner for Corte Madera and San Rafael; San Rafael planning commissioner; San Rafael City Schools Bond Oversight Committee

Monty Schmitt
Age: 52
Occupation: Senior water project director at the Nature Conservancy
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology, University of California at Santa Cruz; master’s degree in watershed management, Humboldt State University
Experience: Former senior scientist and project manager with Natural Resources Defense Council; led San Joaquin River restoration; managed fisheries and flows restoration projects; former researcher with the National Park Service and Ventana Wilderness Society

Chris Hobbs
Age: 50
Occupation: PetHospice chief operating officer
Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of California at Berkeley; master’s degree in business administration, Oxford University
Experience: Organization management

Larry Russell
Age: 73
Occupation: Water quality engineer
Education: Bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley
Experience: MMWD board member since 2004

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