Water customers crowded into the Thunderbird Farms Improvement District board meeting Thursday. Photo by Michelle Chance

Customers of a rural water district were successful in striking down a tax levy proposed by its local board Thursday night.

The Thunderbird Farms Improvement District Governing Board failed to pass an 11.52 percent tax increase after hearing from domestic water clients, angered over the tax that many said could push residents out of their homes – and the water district out of business.

Chairman Patrick Lacey motioned to approve the tax, but the proposed levy died after board members Martha Courtney-Boblitt and Beverly Smith did not second Lacey’s motion.

The result was met with applause from the few dozen customers who packed the district’s conference room for the duration of the three-hour meeting. Thunderbird Farms is in an unincorporated area south of Maricopa.

The three-panel board was able to approve, however, a $15 rate increase of its basic monthly fees. It also decided to table its proposed 2017-18 budget for its next meeting on July 20.

As part of policy, all TFID board members live in the district.

The budget itself was the center of contention for customers. During the hearing’s public comment, many residents questioned budget line items that were published in a legal notice within a local newspaper on May 30 and June 6.

Customer Scott Crawford urged the board to reconsider. He said current figures would transform the water district into one nobody could afford.

“How do you justify $500,000 increase operation and maintenance in this thing? You can’t justify it to these people and if this goes through I’m telling you, you might get locked out of this place down the road because it’s not going to happen,” Crawford said.

In November, district staff moved into a new office building that also houses a new water treatment plant they said is state-compliant.

“We do what needs to be done to provide safe water within the confines of state laws that apply here,” said Jeffrey Crocket, the water district’s attorney.

The construction of the office and treatment plant were part of a $5 million project district officials said were necessary to become compliant. The project also resulted in the creation of a third water tank, dry waste pond and generator.

The project transformed the water district from a small operation to what officials deem as state-of-the art.

Years prior, the district went under a consent order after its arsenic and nitrate levels did not meet increasing water safety standards by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Lacey said the district’s first two “low-cost” project proposals were denied by ADEQ before its current project was eventually approved.

“I will point out that the ADEQ has been very patient with us,” Lacey said. “They could have been fining us for this entire period,” but because the district showed they were making progress toward meeting standards, Lacey said the district got a pass.

Now with the project completed, Lacey said the district is in “total compliance.”

While district employees are managing its new system, they are also budgeting for anticipated repairs to its ageing, 35-year-old waterlines. In a moment of unity, around 10 customers said they would volunteer in various capacities at the district, ranging from office help to waterline repair, in attempts to drive down costs.

The room that overflowed with customers Thursday night was an illustration of other concerns many said were derived from a lack of communication and transparency from the district.

Customers complained public meetings occur on weekday mornings when many of them are at work and unable to attend.

Lacey said the taxation hearing was changed to 6 p.m. Thursday to allow for better customer attendance. The board agreed to discuss permanently changing their public meeting times to the evening after the outcry from their customers.

Even with the rise in domestic water costs, the board and its customers did appear to agree on one thing: They said staying an independent district was in everybody’s best interest.

Lacey said Global Water, the private company that services incorporated Maricopa, offered to buy the rural district out three years ago, and he said he expects the company to attempt it again. 

The large and often hostile crowd had the presence of Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Michelle Chance