Scout Troop’s Christmas Tree Lot Gets a Shock From DWP Fee Hike

Christmas-tree-lot-unloading-DSC_0115In Mission Hills, it’s an annual December tradition: Boy Scout Troop 104 opens a Christmas tree lot on Devonshire Street, the troop’s one big fundraiser to pay for the upcoming year’s camping trips and other activities, like volunteer work with senior citizens and the police department.

Local businesses are very supportive. Primestor, the company that owns the vacant lot just east of Sepulveda Blvd., donates the site. Andy Gump donates the fencing, portable toilets, a temporary power pole, overhead lights, and the labor to dig the holes for the posts from which the lights are suspended.

The parents of the scouts donate their time, a requirement of being in the troop. Everyone is assigned a schedule of mandatory three-hour shifts, and some put in extra hours. And, of course, the scouts volunteer at the tree lot, even the Cub Scouts.

Guess who doesn’t donate or volunteer.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Amanda Lovett, whose son Keith is a scout, is the treasurer of Troop 104. Every year for six years she has gone to the local DWP office and paid a $100 deposit, plus a $300 fee for connecting an overhead power line to the power pole that Andy Gump installed earlier, at no charge.

But this year, the DWP informed Amanda that the fee for connecting the temporary overhead line has been increased.

Guess how much.

It’s now $1,000.

LADWP’s newly hiked fee for “temporary overhead service of 200 amps or less” is posted on the utility’s website under “Construction Services.”

Of course, Boy Scout Troop 104 is not in the construction business. It’s a nonprofit that teaches kids the importance of service to others. This year the troop donated ten Christmas trees to MEND — Meet Each Need with Dignity — an organization in Pacoima that provides food, clothing and assistance to people living in poverty.

Keith showed a visitor a certificate of appreciation from MEND and talked about scouting’s emphasis on volunteer work. “Every Eagle Scout has to do an ‘Eagle project,’” he said, which involves a significant effort at “giving back” to the community.

None of that mattered to the DWP. The city-owned utility is an unregulated monopoly, merrily spending money and raising rates, and now taking the campfire marshmallows out of the mouths of Boy Scouts.

This month, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin released a new study of the DWP prepared by Navigant Consulting, Inc. It devotes a chapter to problems with the utility’s “governance structure,” reporting that while the DWP is overseen by the mayor, the City Council, the City Attorney and a five-member Board of Commissioners, “no single entity has enough insight into or authority over Department operations and finances to hold it fully accountable.”

A more plausible explanation is that they’re all in it together.

While you were busy getting ready for the holidays, you may have missed the Ratepayer Advocate, Fred Pickel, blessing the proposed five-year hike in water rates as “just and reasonable” a month after a consumer group called for him to be fired and Mayor Eric Garcetti responded by defending him during a radio interview.

You may have missed the Board of Commissioners voting to approve the water rate hikes, and Commission President Mel Levine declaring with relief that higher rates will protect the DWP’s bond rating. That signals Wall Street investors to keep loaning money to our city-owned utility, which already has more debt than its peers.

You may have missed reports earlier this year that LADWP salaries are as much as two and a half times the salaries of comparable jobs nationwide, and that most LADWP workers pay nothing for their health insurance.

You may have missed Mayor Garcetti and the City Council promising raises to city workers in 2017, vowing to hire 5,000 new employees, and throwing out the 2012 pension reforms that were supposed to achieve modest savings for taxpayers.

In Los Angeles, money grows on power poles.

Every year, LADWP transfers 8 percent of the power system’s gross revenues — hundreds of millions of dollars — to the city general fund, to be spent on expenses like salaries and pensions.

Next year, $56 of that money will have come from the extra $700 LADWP charged Boy Scout Troop 104 to run a wire from a nearby power pole to the Christmas tree lot.

Ebeneezer Scrooge would be impressed.

But the Grinch must be upset that he’s lost his job to a more experienced Christmas stealer.

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DWP Demands Could Uproot Two Plant Nurseries

PlantWhy is the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power forcing two San Fernando Valley nurseries out of business?

Green House Nurseries in Arleta and Live Art Plantscapes in Northridge are small, owner-operated businesses. They have employees. They pay taxes. They comply with all applicable regulations. And like many nurseries in Southern California, they’re located on utility-owned land that is directly underneath power transmission lines.

These wholesale nurseries supply indoor plants to hotels, retail stores, office buildings and commercial designers. Some of the lush, tropical plants that decorate the Wynn and Encore hotels in Las Vegas were grown in Arleta. Some of the spectacular red bromeliads that will be in the Bellagio’s Chinese New Year display are growing right now in Northridge.

Green House Nurseries was a new business venture when owners Mark Whitten and Paul Needleman began renting land from LADWP in 1998. Whitten, a geologist, and Needleman, a horticulturist, built two climate-controlled greenhouse structures with the full approval of LADWP. In 2003, they received approval to build a third greenhouse on the property. Small-business loans helped to cover the cost of construction, which ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“These are engineered structures that will withstand 100-mph winds and earthquakes,” Whitten said, pointing to a thick steel support post sunk deep into the ground. “They were built to LADWP’s specifications.”

But about a year ago, LADWP’s real estate department sent Needleman and Whitten a letter stating that the 15-foot-high greenhouses would have to be dismantled and replaced with smaller structures no taller than 10 feet.

That would put Green House Nurseries out of business. The heating and cooling equipment in their greenhouses can’t be cut up and segmented into smaller modules.

Live Art Plantscapes received a similar letter and faces the same grim situation. Owner Larry Tabeling has built a business that depends on the climate-controlled greenhouses approved by LADWP 11 years ago.

Too bad, says LADWP.

But why?

They won’t say.

There’s no question that the city-owned utility has the legal right to control the use of the land under its transmission lines and to withdraw permission for any structures or activities. But neighbors are concerned about the kind of structures and activities that could return to the sites if the nurseries are kicked out.

The Arleta Neighborhood Council pleaded with City Councilwoman Nury Martinez in September to help keep Green House Nurseries under the power lines. “We do not want to see them go,” wrote council president John Hernandez. “We fear that if they do go, the property will revert to an empty lot attracting illegal dumping, drug traffic, homeless, etc.”

Like Live Art Plantscapes, Green House Nurseries is located in a residential neighborhood, surrounded by quiet streets of single-family homes. “They are the perfect neighbor,” Hernandez wrote, “This is the kind of business that any city would be happy to have, and we do not want to lose them.”

Loyce Lacson, who heads an Arleta neighborhood watch group, wrote to Martinez asking for her help to get Green House Nurseries “grandfathered” for another five-year extension of their license. “Previous to Green House locating to Arleta, DWP was not maintaining the property,” Lacson wrote. And crime was a problem. A cluster of candles and flowers still marks the site of a shooting before the nursery moved in.

The Arleta Neighborhood Council made inquiries to see if other utilities were implementing new height limits for greenhouses. They were not. “We found that nurseries under power lines in other parts of Los Angeles and Orange Counties with similar structures have not been asked to make any modifications to their structures,” John Hernandez wrote in his letter to Martinez.

Given the cost of land, these businesses are unlikely to reopen in Los Angeles if forced out of their current locations. The city will lose the tax revenue, the employees will lose their jobs, and the communities will lose a good neighbor.

But why? If the greenhouses met all applicable LADWP and building code requirements at the time they were approved, what has changed?

Before two small businesses in the San Fernando Valley are destroyed, someone at LADWP should answer that question.

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