By Mike Allen
Photos, top left to bottom right: Division II candidates Augie Scalzitti, James Sly and Suzanne Till; Division IV candidate Augie Caires
September 30, 2020 (Santee) - The 2020 election will have two seats on the Padre Dam Municipal Water District’s five-member board of directors up for a vote, but only one is being contested.
The Division II seat that has been held by Augie Scalzitti for four terms dating back to 2000 has two other contenders: James Sly and Suzanne Till. In Division IV, Director Augie Caires is unopposed.
Scroll down for our interviews with all four candidates.
Scalzitti actually has served on the water board for 22 years, counting a two year stint from 1993-95 when he was appointed. He decided to run in 2000, and is a familiar face on the board, serving as president in 2002, 2008, and 2016.
The retired barber, whose home looks out on the Carlton Oaks Golf Course, said he’s most proud about how Santee Lakes has grown and become a nationally recognized park that more than pays for itself.
“When I came on the board the park had a budget of about $1 million. Now it’s over $6 million, and not a penny of it comes from the water rates,” Scalzitti said. “It’s self sufficient, and operates without charging any taxes.”
He’s also a big backer of the district’s major improvement project, the Advanced Water Purification Program that will create a sustainable supply of drinking water to East County. The process would take sewage that is now sent to San Diego and reroute it to Santee’s sewage treatment plant where it will be purified to a potable level before it’s transmitted to Lake Jennings, where it will be withdrawn and again treated before being distributed to residents.
“This is going to provide the insurance for our water needs, and eventually provide about 30 percent of recycled water for our region,” he said.
The program that has been in planning stages for about a decade is scheduled to select the contracting teams for the $600 million facility in October. Construction is slated to begin in 2022, and will produce drinking water by 2025.
When confronted by charges that he falsely used the endorsement of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council in his campaign brochures, Scalzitti said while he didn’t have the Council endorsement, he did have the backing of some members of the group.
Katelyn Hailey, the campaign and legislative director of the Council, said there was no record of the organization endorsing Scalzitti in 2016. For this election, the Council endorsed Till.
A lifetime resident of Santee, Sly is the chief operating officer for the East County Economic Development Council, a nonprofit aimed at business attraction and retention to the East County region.
Sly has made Padre Dam’s exorbitant water rates the focal point for his first foray into elected politics. “Everyone can appreciate the work that the Padre Dam board has done from a maintaining of our infrastructure perspective, but what is lost is the customers. We pay some of the highest water rates in the country,” he said.
When you consider the district has rates that are almost double what some neighboring districts such as Lakeside Water pay, it’s time to look at new ways of operating the agency, Sly said.
He said there’s evidence that PDMWD’s bureaucracy has gotten too unwieldy and bloated, and needs to be reduced, or right-sized.
He ended his pitch by saying it is time for a change. “He (Scalzitti) has been on the Padre Dam board since 1993, and has overseen every water rate increase for the past 20 years….If you re-elect him, you know what to expect.”
Till, a teacher at Mater Dei High School in Chula Vista, says while the district has taken some steps towards generating its own water sources via the Advance Water Treatment Program, it’s ignoring huge opportunities that are within its grasp.
“We should be looking at more ways of storing water,” she said. “Beneath the San Diego River there’s an alluvial aqua fir that we could use to store the rain runoff. If we have heavy rains during winter, it could be used for storing that excess water, but there is little interest from the board about pursuing this.”
The former Marine captain who earned a Ph.D. in water resources geography from the University of Colorado says the district also hasn’t been aggressive enough in helping homeowners conserve their own water. While California has a rebate program that rewards owners for capturing rain water, there’s nothing on the district’s website that informs customers about this, she said.
Till points to a recent report on water affordability by the state which ranked PDMWD at the lowest tier. “My water bill is always my most expensive utility bill that I pay, and I’m sure that is the case for many other families in our district,” she said. “Within the last year the board has put in two rate hikes and I’ve asked repeatedly what can we do about it, and I’m not getting any answers.”
Till speaks of using her knowledge of water management to figure out new approaches to getting control of the district’s ever rising rates. “I think highly of Augie (Scalzitti), and appreciate all of the years of his service that he’s provided. But with these water rates, it’s time for an expert to be on this board, and I’m an expert,” she said.
After 13 years serving as the CEO of PDMWD, Caires retired in 2006, but not for long. He was appointed to a board seat in 2007, and then elected in the following year, and in two successive elections, making his tenure on the board at 13 years and counting.
Caires says the two main reasons behind Padre Dam’s expensive rates are the higher costs of importing all of the district’s water through the County Water Authority, and the higher costs of pumping the water east to Alpine and surrounding environs.
Regarding the Advanced Water Purification project, Caires says the price is not locked in stone but will certainly exceed $600 million. The agency is partnering with the Helix Water District, San Diego County, and the city of El Cajon to share the costs. “We’re not over all the hurdles yet, but we’re looking good,” he said.
Asked why he thought nobody would challenge him for the seat, Caires said, “I don’t know. I’m not a politician. It’s not because people think I’m doing such a great job.”
Mike Allen writes about government agencies and other topics for East County Magazine, mainly covering the Santee City Council. Among the newspapers he’s written for are the San Diego Business Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, the Vista Press, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He has won numerous journalism awards including a fellowship to the Stonier School of Banking by the American Bankers Association while employed as a financial reporter.
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