Sanitary District’s New Office

By Woody Barrett   |   August 22, 2019

On June 7, 2019 the Montecito Sanitary District Board voted 3 to 2 and approved the expenditure of $4,621,486 for the construction of a new office building. Two ratepayers were present, and both asked the board to vote against the new building. Your elected directors, Dana Newquist and I, voted against the new building. The other three directors, which have not stood for election and are in their seats by nomination, voted for the building: Tom Kern, Jeff Kerns, and Tom Bollay. I applaud Director Bollay’s enthusiasm and willingness to serve our community, but one should note, even though he lives in the sanitary district, his residence is on a septic system and he is not a ratepayer.

What’s the Problem with a New Building?

1) The board has not been presented with the total cost estimate for the completed project, which could easily approach $6,000,000. The total at this point in time is $5,400,000, far larger than the $3,500,000 approved by the previous board.

2) The design of the building looks nothing like the industrial type structure seen at other sanitary districts. It is a beautiful stucco-style building, with a red tile roof and copper gutters, designed by architect Brian Cerneal, who has completed numerous beautiful projects including the Plaza Montecito, home to the Honor Bar.

3) There is no justification for this new building. To my knowledge, no inspection report exists that states the current building contains mold, termites, or structural integrity issues. It’s a nice office building, and has been upgraded through the years. I implore the public to visit, and see for themselves. On numerous occasions reference has been made to a 2004 Strategic Master Plan. It is a one-page plat of the sanitary parcel with an office building drawn on it. There is no detailed wording or description and no date as to when it was prepared or by whom.

Given no real justification for it, one wonders at the determination of General Manager (GM) Diane Gabriel to construct this new building. She informed the board that no permits were required for the new office building, which I find odd in a county famous for its arduous permitting processes. It seems GM Gabriel was planning to skip the permitting process entirely, despite being located in the Coastal Zone.

The county, when notified, quickly determined the building does require permitting, and is now on the case. The Administration and Operations (A&O) Committee, consisting of Directors Bollay and Kerns, along with the GM Gabriel, are in the process of removing all non-essential spaces in the building that will require permitting. You may not know it, but “essential services” buildings are exempt from the permitting process. Currently, appointed Director Bollay wants to remove the (non-essential) boardroom and greeting counter. Maybe these non-essential pieces will get permitted and built in a separate structure later, or never. The A&O Committee will present its findings in the future. Please note, there is no elected director on the A&O Committee.

Director Kerns stated that once the new office building is constructed, the current office building and boardroom building will be demolished, to build new employee housing. The justification for employee housing is to have personnel on site in case a disaster occurs. However, the MSD employees completed their work in exemplary fashion after last year’s monstrous debris flow with no employees living onsite. All MSD systems have built-in backups for redundancy and if a problem arises, the backup system is engaged and employees receive text alerts.

I encourage you to monitor the MSD website, and attend the next board meeting to voice your feelings on these ambitious building plans at MSD.

Where is the Money Coming From?

Back in 2007 the MSD issued a 30-year, $10,000,000 bond to build a new laboratory building, a new maintenance building, and line 26 miles of sewer main pipe. This is how most, if not all, districts pay for major expenditures.

However, this time the MSD has chosen to pay cash for new office building from the Capital Replacement Fund, with a current balance of $7,000,000. This year, ratepayers will pay $1,250,000 into the fund. Instead of the expense being spread out over 30 years to the ratepayers, the current ratepayers are paying for the bulk of this new office building.

A large portion of this $7,000,000 came from the recent rate increase of 37%, fueled by a rate study in 2016 for the MSD bringing the current annual sanitary fee to $1,480 for each residence. That study proved to be overly ambitious in its projections which resulted in a large amount of additional revenue to the MSD in the short term.

I welcome your questions, comments, and concerns. Director Newquist and I were elected to oversee and protect the interests of the ratepayers. Given the lack of justification, I can see no benefit to the ratepayers by spending their money on this new $5,500,000 office building, which may ultimately total $6,000,000.

Here’s how you can contact me: woodymsd2018@gmail.com.

Here’s how you can contact the district: email staff@montsan.org or call (805) 969-4200.

 

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