Purissima Hills Water District defends LAH county fire agency amid scathing audit

Updated, 9:55 a.m. June 25: In advance of a Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors review of allegations against the Los Altos Hills County Fire District, a partner agency has publicly professed support of the district. 

An audit of the fire district misguidedly criticized actions it completed to improve fire suppression efforts within its jurisdiction, argued Ernest Solomon, Purissima Hills Water District (PHWD) Board of Directors president, in a June 15 letter addressed to supervisors Cindy Chavez and Dave Cortese. Chavez and Cortese comprise the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Government Operations Committee (FGOC), which is tasked with reviewing an audit completed by the board’s Management Audit Division and published May 22. They were expected to do so Thursday morning as part of a joint teleconferenced meeting between the FGOC and the Children, Seniors and Families Committee, another group Chavez and Cortese preside over, but the discussion was deferred until the FGOC's next meeting. After the review takes place, the supervisors could make a recommendation to the entire board.

‘Vital’ collaboration

Within the audit, management audit manager Cheryl Solov questioned whether the fire district’s history of funding enhancements to PHWD infrastructure like fire hydrants and water tanks could constitute illegal “gifts” of public funds. She recommended the Board of Supervisors temporarily suspend fire district commissioners’ authority to prevent them from spending additional taxpayer money on such projects until further review.

California government code, however, allows the two agencies to share financial responsibilities and their ongoing collaboration is vital, Solomon wrote in his letter.

“Our joint projects have benefited the residents of Los Altos Hills as homeowners, ratepayers, and taxpayers, and improved fire safety for the region,” he wrote. “We are proud of our joint projects and believe that they are what our constituents should expect from us.”

Solov, Solomon added, makes several references to the water district in her audit, but she never reached out to the agency for answers or explanations connected to her accusations.

In the fire district commissioners’ own written rebuttal of the audit, they cite 1983 case law allowing water agencies and fire districts to contract with each other. They also explain how past expenditures safeguard the community. During fiscal year 2013-2014, for example, the fire district spent $2.34 million, 80% of the total cost to increase the capacity of PHWD’s Neary water tank located off La Loma Drive. The PHWD funded the remaining 20%.

The fire district shouldered the bulk of the price tag because it was the primary beneficiary of the project, according to the rebuttal.

“The Neary Tank capacity could only utilize 700,000 gallons in summer and 100,000 gallons in winter due to limitations in structural integrity and small diameter piping,” commissioners wrote. “According to an independent engineer, the available capacity of the tank was possibly not adequate for fire protection.”

Now the tank is capable of holding 2 million gallons during the summer and 1 million gallons during winter, an ample supply of water should a major fire event occur, according to commissioners.

Solomon’s letter only addresses parts of the audit pertaining to the water district. It does not mention Solov’s other allegations against the fire district, including potential violations of California open-meeting laws and failures to adhere to competitive bidding processes.

Solov and fire district representatives declined to comment for this article.

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