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Water fee collection procedure and practices challenged

Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2013 — A local water user claims the process Lassen County follows in assessing and collecting watermaster service fees is "unlawful and unjust," and therefore he says his family will not pay the bill.The watermaster service fees are determined by the Honey Lake Valley Resource Conservation District, reported to the Lassen County Assessor's Office and then users are billed through the Lassen County Tax Collector's Office. If the fee is not paid, the tax collector processes the fee as if it is an unpaid tax bill.

Water users Mike and Katrina Trask wrote a letter to Lassen County Tax Collector Richard Egan protesting the fee Dec. 9."Our rights have been violated and continue to be violated by multiple offices of Lassen County," the Trasks wrote. "After being publicly made aware of these violations, you continue on. We will not pay the unlawful fee you have placed on the tax bill."Egan responded to Trask's letter with a Dec. 31 letter of his own."I am in receipt of your letter dated Dec. 9, 2013," Egan wrote. "In that letter you allege that my 'office has included an unlawful and unjust fee' on your tax bill. You further allege that my knowledge of said fee has violated rights, due process and is unconstitutional. I obviously take those allegations very seriously, but have not found facts to support them."As I have discussed with you on several occasions, I have taken an oath to uphold the law of this state and believe I have done so. The watermaster fee that you refer to has been, I believe, legally levied ... (and) as such, it is my duty to collect them ... "Lassen County Auditor Karen Fouch said in her opinion, the district has filed the appropriate documents with her office and the assessments levied by Egan's office are proper.She said she sympathizes with the Trasks, but their complaint should be taken up with the Lassen County Superior Court because the Trasks allege the district has not filed the proper paperwork with the court as ordered in a decree issued by Lassen County Superior Court Judge Stephen Bradbury in June 2007.Fouch and Egan both said the filing of documents with the court and with the county are two separate matters.Egan said once Fouch approves the assessments, his duty is to collect them. Egan also said the Trasks should take their concerns to the court. Egan sent copies of his letter to the court, the board of supervisors, Fouch and the district.Michael Trask said he's consulted an attorney who advised him it would cost more than $10,000 to bring a writ of mandate action before the court to force the district to comply with the court order. Trask wonders why he has to spend that kind of money to force the district to file reports it has already been ordered to file.

Complaint to districtThe Trasks filed a Water Rights Dispute Form with the conservation district in June complaining about a letter they received from John Bentley, chairman of the Honey Lake Valley Conservation District, complaining that the budget and assessments included in the letter to be billed by the Lassen County Tax Collector's Office are in error.According to the dispute form, the Trasks had attempted to resolve the problem with the watermaster and sought assistance from the district's Watermaster Advisory Committee.According to a letter from the Trasks attached to the complaint, they requested "the information used to calculate the fee and the increase in these fees."According to the letter, the Trasks, seasonal water users on Baxter Creek with a third-priority water right, are being charged a larger watermaster fee than first priority users."There is no reason that a third-priority water right should pay a larger fee for service on a seasonal creek versus a first or second water right user on a year-round tributary such as the Susan River and Willow Creek where the watermaster is actually providing a service and the water user is receiving water."The district agendized a discussion of Trask's complaint for its December meeting, but the matter was tabled because Trask was unable to attend.

Grand juryTrask's most recent conflict with the county is his latest skirmish in his conflict regarding the Honey Lake Valley Conservation District and its procedure that dates back to 2012.Grand Jury Foreman Mike Smith sent a letter to the general managers or board chairs of special districts across Lassen County on Dec. 3, 2012, seeking "budgets and audits of each special district within Lassen County."The grand jury sought the information because it is charged with reporting on "the operation, accounts and records of local government agencies."While the grand jury's 2012-2013 final report does not specifically address the conservation district, the grand jury said it did not receive reports from the Big Valley Irrigation District, the Big Valley Pest Control District and the Doyle Fire Protection District. The grand jury said it did not receive audits from the Bieber Lighting District, the Clear Creek Community Service District, Honey Lake TelevisionService, Johnstonville Water Service, Madeline Fire Protection District, Northwest Lassen Fire Protection District and the Pit Resources Conservation District.According to the grand jury's findings, "It became apparent that many of the districts, especially the smaller ones, appeared to have a general lack of understanding of special district laws as they apply to their operations, proper budget procedures and the requirement of having annual audits prepared.Trask filed a complaint with the Lassen County Grand Jury March 22, 2012 alleging the district has, in violation of a court order, provided water users with a copy of its budget only once between the years 2007 and 2011.


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