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A drain on resources

PHOENIX — Brushing dirt from his slacks after working with his prized dahlias one recent morning, retired teacher Don Mitchell shakes his head when asked about the water that helped turned this once-barren site into a home his family has occupied for nearly six decades.

One of four-dozen customers of the Charlotte Annee Water District, Mitchell is frustrated that the city could soon vote to take in customers and facilities owned by the district that provided him with the water the city once refused to provide.

The properties of Mitchell and his neighbors were annexed into the city half a dozen years ago, but they were never connected to the city water supply.

Under state law, cities who manage their own water systems must include customers whose property falls inside municipal boundaries.

Mitchell's white hair was jet black when the now 80-year-old man purchased an acre of land on the outskirts of town in the early 1950s with part of his $37 per month military pay.

Visible from the intersection of Fern Valley Road and Highway 99, his now three-acre plot behind Ray's market boasts 300 trees, four houses and sprawling flower and vegetable gardens.

"When I asked the city for water, they told me no," said Mitchell, noting that, at the time, the city's water system was supplied by a series of mineral-laden wells.

"I even offered to dig a ditch and go into hock to buy a pipe to extend water from the cemetery. They could own the pipe. I just wanted some water. They told me it'll be 100 years before anyone lives over there," he added.

Known for his resourcefulness, Mitchell and a handful of others, most of whom are now gone, worked together to petition for inclusion into a young water district dubbed Charlotte Anne.

With service soon provided, Mitchell thought little about where his water came from, but he says he never took for granted that it transformed an empty field into his family's home.

"We pulled star thistle for six to eight years with our little red 1953 Dodge pickup truck, and we'd pile it up and burn it," Mitchell said, nodding at the same truck, parked under one of his many trees.

Twenty-five years later, Ray's market was added to the water district, joining nearly four dozen residents and businesses, including Phoenix High, that are located inside the city but who get their water from Charlotte Anne.

That city officials are now discussing adding Mitchell and his neighbors to the city water system concerns him. If forced to use city water, his annual water bill would jump from $1,300 to $2,888.

With rates that recently increased, Phoenix residents pay some of the highest water prices in the valley. Phoenix residents pay a $28 base rate while residents in other nearby cities pay between $7 and $12.

Steve Wilson, chairman of the board of directors for the Charlotte Anne Water District, said the district's hands are tied. In fact, water-line replacement required as part of the Fern Valley Road interchange project could come at the expense of district customers regardless of whether the city takes over the 44 accounts.

"Nothing is really up to us. When cities expand they take over whatever properties fall inside their boundaries," Wilson said.

Phoenix Mayor Carlos DeBritto said the issue is one of equity. A handful of residents can't reside inside city limits and have different water rates than everyone else, he noted.

"It isn't fair that we have city residents paying based on the city's rates and these folks are inside our city and paying much less," DeBritto said.

An ad hoc committee appointed last year to review rates suggested that Charlotte Anne customers be folded into the city by October.

Recent estimates provided by city engineer Jeff Ballard show the move would bring up to $65,000 in added revenues per year after one-time expenses of around $48,000.

Charlotte Anne Water District board member Dale Sauer said he found it ironic that the city once declined to participate in a district that today offers lower rates. Sauer also voiced concerns that the city has extended water service to city residents still legally included in the Charlotte Anne district.

Mitchell said a regional system would make the most sense to him, much like sewer and garbage services.

"Phoenix rates are so high, and they've got people just down the road paying half or a third what they want in Phoenix," he said.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I know there has to be a better one than they're coming up with."

DeBritto said a public hearing would take place before City Council decides how to proceed. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Editor's note: Don Mitchell died Sunday, July 31, 2011.

Don Mitchell, whose property behind Ray's market in Phoenix is located inside the city limits, receives water from the Charlotte Ann Water System. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore