Victorville In Dispute With Water Division Employees Over Benefits

VICTORVILLE—The city of Victorville’s gobbling up of two of the area’s independent water districts more than four years ago has produced lingering symptoms of heartburn.

The city’s mergers with the Victor Valley Water District and Baldy Mesa Water District were vociferously opposed by certain elements of the community when the idea was first floated in 2004. By 2007, however, the city had muted much of that opposition and met the procedural requirements to make the acquisitions.

But the terms the city had to fulfill to complete the takeover entailed certain commitments, and resulted in continuing costs that under the conditions of the current and prolonged economic downturn are proving onerous to the city. Moreover, even as the city is struggling to meet those commitments, those due benefits as former employees of the districts are claiming the city is shortchanging them.

According to a widely-circulated memo authored by Steve Borrowman, the city’s assistant water division director, the city is welshing on commitments made to nearly 22 retired and vested employees and on the verge of reneging on the same promises to 27 others when they retire.

In effectuating the takeovers, the city agreed to hire the employees of both districts and maintain for them the benefits that were being provided to them by Victor Valley Water and Baldy Mesa. Borrowman was one of those employees. He is now standing up against his current employer, accusing it of unfairly and perhaps even illegally backing out of on its contractual obligations. He has suggested the city could bear liability on the matter if employees or former employees sue over the matter.

At issue, it appears, is whether the employees are due the level of health benefits they were set to receive as Victor Valley Water and Baldy Mesa employees, or whether the city is meeting its obligation by providing them with the level of benefits provided to city employees as a whole.

In the last two-and-a-half years, the city, which is beset with financial difficulties, has reduced benefits for all city employees in three different actions. Former water district employees maintain that the health benefits they are now receiving are substantially lower than what they were previously receiving and what the city said they would continue to receive.

At the time of the takeover the city said it would place $5 million in a sequestered account devoted exclusively to maintaining retirement health benefits. Current and former water division employees suspect that the city has tapped into that money and used it for other city programs. City administrators assert the retirement account was properly funded but that the cost of those benefits has now nearly doubled to $9.8 million and the city is not obliged to make up the difference.

Twenty-two of the 49 employees that were absorbed into city ranks as a result of the mergers have now retired. Some of them, as well as water division employees still with the city, are contemplating legal action to force the city to endow the retirement health fund to the level previously agreed to.