Highland’s residents vote in favor of water merger
With 473 votes in favor, the city of Highland and the nonprofit privately owned Highland Water Company will be merging.
The decision comes after months of discussion and debate about whether the company that handles the $35 million drinking water system in the city should merge with the city, which handles pressurized irrigation. Now all will be run by Highland within one department.
The vote was made either by proxy or in person at the company’s board meeting on Wednesday, where more than 100 people showed up, many voicing their concerns about the merger. The votes were tallied and authenticated on Thursday and Friday, and there were approximately 445 dissenting votes, making this a very tight race.
Under company bylaws, the board of directors of the water company had to hold an election where every member of the company, or 2,900 people, could vote on the dissolution. The number of members is in direct proportion to the number of households that receive drinking water, which is almost everyone in Highland and a few homes in unincorporated parts of Utah County. The board members and three out of four city council members along with the mayor all supported the merger.
The most vocal opponent was City Councilwoman Kathryn Schramm, who at the meeting Wednesday stood up a few times to voice her opinion. She said she fears the merger will mean higher water rates. Because the company was a nonprofit organization, it couldn’t raise water rates to make a profit, only to maintain the service.
She also felt like agreeing to the merger means the city acquires priceless water rights and an expensive system for nothing.
“I will never support taking away the freedom to choose for ourselves, especially for nothing,” she said.
Schramm at the meeting also said she did not feel like people had been informed about their right to vote on the merger.
President of the company, Mike Thompson, said the merger will protect the company’s water rights because it’s easier for a city to get and maintain those rights; it’s easier for the city to get rights approved by the state engineer, he said. Also, there would be fewer liability issues with the city taking over and it will cut down on the duplication of services that now exists in Highland, he said.
At the meeting, Thompson tried to make people understand the merger will not change their rights to the water. They were members of the company, which means they paid their bills and voted on a district representative to sit on the board.
Now the decisions will be made by the City Council who will get advice from a different water board, he said.
“Now it will essentially be under ownership of the citizens rather than ownership of the members,” he said.
But many that showed up to the meeting expressed concerns about losing the ability to decide what happens with their water. Some people had gone around earlier in the day Wednesday and collected proxies from neighbors against the merger.
Ron Christensen, a resident of Highland, said at the meeting he was against the merger.
Much of the merger discussion has been about the company trying to maintain their water rights with the state, but that the city is no more guaranteed water rights approval then the company would be, he said.
“We could deed just the water rights to the city,” he said. “Dissolution is a real drastic measure.”
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page D1.