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ICYMI: Ditch demands: BoiseDev investigation finds ditch co. sends residents big bills, files liens. Now Idaho’s AG is asking questions

ICYMI 2022
In Case You Missed It: Some of our best stories of the year

The BoiseDev team is off for the holiday break. (We’ll keep an eye out for any major breaking stories of course.) While our employees enjoy some downtime, we bring you a few stories you might have missed this year. We’ll be back at full strength on January 2nd!

$633.27 is a lot of money for someone living on Social Security in West Boise. 

Lois Fish, a widow for the past decade, opened her mail early this year and saw a letter from a lawyer. It informed her that her home had a lien placed on it for failing to pay her bills to the Shavrer Lateral Water Users Association. Fish thought for sure she would lose her house. More than $600 on her bill was staggering in comparison to her monthly budget and she wasn’t sure how she could have become that delinquent to a service she says she’d never even heard of. 

Especially since Fish doesn’t have access to irrigation water at her house due to the distance to the irrigation ditch. 

She says she tried calling the number listed on the billing statement and couldn’t get in touch with anyone. Without internet or smartphone access, Fish wasn’t sure how to research the company. She couldn’t find an address other than the PO Box listed on the statement or remedy the problem in any other way. So, she waited and worried about what she would do about the legal action taken against her. 

Fish said that before she received notice of the lien she hadn’t gotten bills from Shavrer Lateral WUA in several years, because if she had, she would have paid what she owed like all of her other bills. She’s up to date on any charges from Setters Irrigation District and Fish says she never misses any of her other payments. 

“If I get a bill I pay it,” she said while puttering around in her kitchen. “I’ve never had a lien or anything. I’ve got a couple of cards here from Idaho Power thanking me for being so nice and talking to them and everything. I call them and find out what I can do to keep my bills low.”

According to public records at the Ada County Recorders Office, Shavrer Lateral Water Users’ Association placed liens on Fish’s property and those of six other homeowners for past due bills since December of 2021. Of the seven, four raised concerns in interviews with BoiseDev about a few small unpaid bills ballooning into balances upwards of hundreds of dollars and difficulty reaching anyone who works for Shavrer. One of those interviewed questioned whether he was legally billed at all after fighting to get off the organization’s rolls for years. 

Fish eventually had her lien released in May after a friend paid the charges as a favor, but five other people BoiseDev identified still have liens on their homes from Shavrer Lateral. Another household paid their bill to remove the lien and has since sold their house. 

Attorney General’s Office questions billing  

Shavrer Lateral Water Users Association Secretary/Treasurer Jeanette Johnson talked to BoiseDev via phone earlier this summer. Johnson said Fish’s bill for $633 was what she owed after failing to pay her annual bills of less than $50 to the water user association starting in 2018. She defended their billing practices and their moves to place a lien on Fish’s home, which prevents the sale of the property and can be used as collateral to satisfy a debt. 

“These are fees and so these were not just out-of-the-blue invoices,” Johnson said. “These were fees sent each and every year. These are things then that were sent on an annual basis and then sent out as reminders that they needed to be paid. This is how the ditch works.”

After responding to questions about Fish’s account, Johnson stopped answering BoiseDev’s calls and emails with follow-up inquiries about other accounts and details about her organization. Follow-up questions to Shavrer Board President Richard Lee were directed back to Johnson. A call to Shavrer’s attorney S. Bryce Ferris, at the direction of Lee, was also not returned. 

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office sent a letter to Shavrer Lateral inquiring about the legal justification behind their billing practices, but the water user association did not respond by the office’s August 15 deadline, according to public records requests filed with the office. 

What is the Shavrer Lateral Water User Association?

Water is a big deal in the west, and Idaho is no different. 

A Treasure Valley irrigation canal. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Property owners hoping to use irrigation water for crops, gardens or their lawns must have a legal right to access water from the networks of canals crisscrossing the valley. This requires working with private entities which manage the water flowing through the canals, like Settlers Irrigation District or Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District, in order to facilitate the delivery of your water from the network of dams in the foothills above the Treasure Valley throughout the irrigation season. And on a smaller level, water user associations maintain the infrastructure for smaller ditches and canals within neighborhoods. 

Even if you don’t get irrigation water to your house in Idaho, if you have a water right, you are obligated to pay a water user association or an irrigation district for it every year. The Idaho Department of Water Resources has no regulatory authority over water user associations. If you’d like to stop paying, you can forfeit your water rights by “excluding” your property. 

Shavrer’s Lateral Water Users Association is one of these smaller entities that provides water only to a few subdivisions. Johnson declined to give a list of its customers, so it is unknown exactly how many households are receiving water from her organization. A map of Shavrer’s coverage area Johnson provided shows the irrigation ditch starting at the corner of Five Mile and Ustick roads and snaking through several subdivisions along Cloverdale Road before ending at Locust Grove Road. 

The hand-drawn areas in marker are said to be part of the Shavrer’s Lateral WUA. Via Shavrer’s Lateral WUA

According to business filings with the Idaho Secretary of State, Shavrer Lateral WUA is a nonprofit corporation. But, the organization is not listed as tax-exempt in the database of nonprofits maintained by the IRS or on websites that publish the publicly available tax returns of nonprofits. Johnson or Lee, Secretary and Board President for Shavrer respectively, did not respond to questions about the organization’s tax status or why these tax forms are unavailable. 

Shavrer Lateral WUA was incorporated with the Idaho Secretary of State in 2003 by Johnson. It is linked to an address in Southwest Boise belonging to Brad Doolittle. Some websites listing his name and address also place a woman named Jeanette Doolittle as living at the same address. It is unclear if Jeanette Johnson and Jeanette Doolittle are the same individual.

Johnson also runs the McMullen Lateral Water Users Association, which was listed as a nonprofit corporation with the Idaho Secretary of State in 2010. When you leave a message at the phone number provided by Shavrer Lateral, the message machine references a company called Irrigation Consulting Services. This company, which is registered with the state as a traditional business, is also registered to Johnson at the same address as Shavrer and McMullen Lateral WUAs.

Idaho Code allows water user associations, like Shavrer, to put liens on the properties of people behind on their payments and requires bills to be sent for the annual cost of maintenance to its customers every year. But, there are rules about how steep late fees can be and what other charges are applied to customers’ accounts. 

A rapidly ballooning bill 

A billing statement for Fish’s account provided to BoiseDev by Shavrer shows her being charged $33 per year and her promptly paying it nearly every year since 2006. There were some hiccups, like when Fish paid $33 in April 2007 and then $30 the same day when she only owed roughly half that amount or when she missed a payment in 2012 and promptly paid $66 for both years in 2013.

Things changed in 2018 when Fish was billed $40 and didn’t pay, starting her slide into mounting late fees. First, Johnson charged her a $25 late fee to “review the account.” Then, Fish got another $75 collection fee after a year of non-payment and an additional 1,248 days of interest at 10% were applied, which added $24.96 to Fish’s bill. This all totaled to $164.96 for one year of missing her payment. 

Johnson told BoiseDev collections are done by Shavrer Lateral staff, not sent to a collection agency.

Similar calculations were made each year she didn’t pay, adding $132.44, then $120.32, $101.17 and $147. By the time you subtracted the $40 Fish paid against her balance in 2020 and added the $7.38 charged to her account for certified mail for the lien, Fish owed $633.27.

Lois Fish’s home in West Boise. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

The Idaho code section governing water user associations and billing lays out what sorts of fees and interest can be applied to people who do not pay. The code section says if the bill is not paid “on or before the fifteenth day of June of such year, a penalty of ten percent (10%) shall be added thereto, and the total amount due shall then draw interest at the rate of ten percent (10%) per (year) from said fifteenth day of June of such year until paid.” There is no mention in the code section BoiseDev could locate about late fees or collections fees. 

Johnson did not respond to questions about interest being applied daily, as opposed to annually. Lee, Shavrer’s Board President, was unfamiliar with details but he told BoiseDev it was all above board. The attorney he said worked for Shavrer did not respond to a message left at his office. 

“It’s my understanding that our processes within Shravrer’s Lateral have been reviewed by somebody with a legal perspective,” he said in an interview. 

After receiving a letter from Johnson breaking down the charges on Fish’s account, BoiseDev reached out to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office on July 19 for information on whether or not their billing practices aligned with Idaho law. The office declined to comment on the matter to BoiseDev or discuss Shavrer Lateral WUA in any capacity.

On July 29, the AG’s Consumer Protection Act Division sent a letter to the organization with a list of questions asking for the legal justification behind how the raft of fees charged customers for paying late is calculated. 

A follow-up public records request showed Shavrer Lateral did not respond by August 15 as requested by the office. Questions to Johnson and Lee about the letter from the AGs office went unanswered. The AGs office declined to comment if there would be a follow-up letter or an investigation. 

‘Never talked to her’ 

Fish and Johnson disagree on whether invoices were mailed out on the account. 

In a letter to BoiseDev responding to questions about Fish’s account, Johnson maintains that all of the invoices were sent to Fish’s address, which was listed on the invoices. She said there have been “registered letters” sent to Fish, but she did not provide receipts showing proof of certified mail or other information showing proof they were mailed aside from a series of dated billing invoices with Fish’s address on them. 

Johnson also described several personal interactions she’s had with Fish over the years, which she said included phone calls every year when information about Shavrer’s annual meeting came available. 

“She and I would discuss irrigation when I would deliver cat and bird food to her home through a volunteer program,” Johnson wrote in a letter in response to BoiseDev’s questions. “Mrs. Fish was aware of the invoices when they were due and that she had received them. Lois and I had many conversations regarding her children, helping her pay her bills in general, her relationship with the children, and if they could send her back money she had sent them years prior of which she had even contacted an attorney about.”

Fish flatly denies this, saying she would “take a lie detector test,” swearing she has never talked to Johnson in person or on the phone. 

“Deliver cat food?” Fish said, gesturing toward the cat food bowl on her front porch. “You can go talk to the people at Albertsons about that. I buy my cat food at Albertsons, lots of it. I’ve never seen her, never talked to her, she’s never been here. Never seen her, nothing.”

Home with no water rights for years still billed 

If your property is excluded from the irrigation district, it means you give up your rights to ever receive irrigation water and are supposed to not be billed anymore.

Stanley Hunt hasn’t been a fan of receiving bills from Shavrer Lateral or any other irrigation district since he bought his home in 2012. At first, he had his hopes up to use the water for his lawn, but once he was told that his property could not access the irrigation water due to a lack of working pipes delivering it, he refused to pay the bills.

Eventually, he filed paperwork with Settlers Irrigation District to exclude his home and give up his water rights. A screenshot he provided from August 2015 shows he was approved for exclusion, and a call to Settlers Irrigation District confirmed he is still excluded and there is a note in his file that he cannot access water at his property. 

Stanley Hunt’s home in West Boise. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

But, Shavrer’s Lateral has continued to bill him for maintenance and, like Fish, he got a lien on his home in December. Paperwork on his lien obtained by BoiseDev shows he owes $986.25 to the water user association. He said the bills have continued to come even after he inquired about getting water to his property when the pipes in front of his house were fixed when Cloverdale Road was widened, but Johnson told him he had given up his water rights and is no longer eligible for water. A bill for “2022 irrigation ditch maintenance, repairs, improvements” came earlier this year.

The lien doesn’t worry Hunt much, though, because he has no plans to sell his home anytime soon. 

“There needs to be enough people for a class action suit because my $1,000 bill isn’t enough to hire an attorney and fight it, but if they keep playing, it’s going to get to the amount of 5, 6, $7,000 lien on my house and I will get an attorney and fight it,” he said. “…I ain’t moving anywhere, I ain’t going anywhere and the day is going to come when there will be a court battle.”

Questions to Johnson about Hunt’s account went unanswered. When asked about Hunt, Lee said he wasn’t familiar with the account and referred BoiseDev back to Johnson. 

Idaho code does not give a straight answer about many things related to water user associations, including whether or not Hunt should be billed by Shavrer Lateral after he’s given up his water rights. The law says anyone can exclude themselves from a water user association by providing “written notice and proof” that the property owner’s land is no longer eligible to receive water. Still, it doesn’t directly spell out whether it is illegal for a water user association to keep billing someone after they have revoked their water rights.

Hunt says after he excluded his property from Settlers Irrigation District he went to Jeanette and requested to be excluded from Shavrer so she would stop billing him, but he was told even if he had given up his water rights he could not leave the Shavrer Lateral WUA.

“She was so rude,” Hunt said, recalling the conversation. “All she says is ‘Idaho code this, Idaho code that’ and saying I have an obligation to pay for water they can’t give me.”

‘I’m still in’

Shannon Orr would love to join Hunt and give up her water rights, but so far she has been stuck. 

Like him, she was not a fan of being billed for irrigation water she had no ability to use when her family first purchased their home in 2012. Orr said her husband went to discuss being excluded with one of the irrigation districts in 2013, but he didn’t get a receipt so she has no record of his attempt to exclude and whether or not it was successful. The bills kept coming, and she refused to pay because they didn’t receive any water, and her family didn’t have the means to pay her husband’s retail store manager salary. 

Orr continued to let the bills from the irrigation district and Shavrer Lateral pile up, but every few years her smaller balance from the irrigation district was wiped and she started again from zero. Eventually, she discovered that the irrigation district was going to her mortgage lender and having them pay the charge when she wouldn’t, instead of putting a lien on her property. 

She tried again in earnest to get herself excluded in 2018 and talked with Johnson, who agreed to drop some of the late fees and charges to get her balance down to $280.89, according to a billing statement with Johnson’s handwriting on it provided to BoiseDev. But, Orr said her family still couldn’t afford the bill and asked to get all of her charges waived, or reduced further. This was not granted.

Her bill in 2019, which she also provided to BoiseDev, shows a balance of $954.59. By December 2021, she also got a lien placed on her home showing a balance of $1,540.09. Orr said she has repeatedly asked to be excluded going back to 2018, but she says she keeps getting the run around from both Shavrers and the irrigation district on who has to give permission for her to give up her water rights. 

Shannon Orr holds billing statements from Shavrer Lateral Water Users Association. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

“Every time I think I found a way to get out, I do it, and I’m still in,” Orr said. 

Emails she provided between her and Lee from 2021 and early this year show multiple requests from Orr asking to be excluded and describe conversations she had with Johnson where she was told there was no way for her to opt-out of being billed by Shavrer Lateral. Orr also told Lee in a November 2021 email that Johnson said she was “going to place a lien upon my property that day and that SHE would TAKE my property.”

In an email from Lee back to Orr in that same time period, he said he was still in the process of mapping the canal and agreed that “I don’t think you have access to it in your backyard.”

Johnson did not respond to questions about Orr’s account. In an interview, Lee said the four-member board for Shavrer Lateral needs to discuss Shannon’s exclusion request and her balance that has been accruing, even though she’s been asking to be excluded for years. He didn’t have a timeline on when that conversation would happen. 

“I feel though that she has been requesting exclusion for awhile so we have to take that into account with regards to her account,” he said, after noting that normally the exclusion process requires the customer to pay what they owe. “I don’t know when we’ll have that conversation. I was hoping we’d have a meeting last spring and she didn’t show up to the annual meeting. We need to have it.”

What about the other homes with liens?

BoiseDev identified seven homeowners who have had liens placed on their property from Shavrer Lateral since December 2021.

Along with Fish, Hunt and Orr, there were also four other homeowners impacted. Kituta Asimba, Fish’s neighbor, also found himself stuck with a lien for $844.45. He had been puzzled by the bills arriving for Shavrer Lateral and other irrigation districts since moving into the property in 2017. Unlike other services he was billed for like power, water from the tap and sewer, he couldn’t see why he should be billed for irrigation water when he had no canal in his yard. 

And when he tried to get in touch with Johnson to understand the bill and what he might be missing due to English not being his first language, he said he couldn’t get ahold of anyone. 

He called it a “ghost service” and said it had all the hallmarks of scams he warns other people in the refugee community to avoid when they move to the United States. 

Kituta Asimba poses in his office while reviewing old emails from Shavrer Lateral Water User Association. Photo: Margaret Carmel/BoiseDev

“I couldn’t get anybody on the phone,” he said. “Every time I was calling and calling and calling the voice mail was full so I thought ‘This is a scam.’ Then I wrote an email to the company. They said I had a ditch. My English wasn’t that (strong at the time) so I didn’t know the ditch is the canal. Okay, but I don’t have canal water in the back of my yard? It’s over four or five houses, so how do I pay for canal water? That couldn’t get into my mind.”

Asimba showed BoiseDev several emails he had back and forth with Johnson as far back as 2019 about his bill where he was told they couldn’t reach him due to issues with his phone number, which he refutes. Several times over a long period of time he requested someone to come to his home and show him where his water access was, or how to the system worked, and he said no one came, so he didn’t pay his bill. 

He hoped that getting a lien on his property it would allow him to go to court and make his case for how he believed Shavrer was treating customers unethically to a judge, but Asimba was disappointed to find out the lien process wouldn’t get him a day in court. Eventually, he wanted to sell his home for personal reasons not related to Shavrer Lateral and put down the money to clear the lien, but the hit of over $800 wasn’t fun for his bank account. 

Another property has a lien on a property he owns in the Shavrer Lateral area for $1,567.13. The resident could not be reached for comment and the lien was mailed to an address in Northwest Boise that had its mailbox tied shut and no cars in the driveway at the time of BoiseDev’s visit to the property. No one answered the door at the home in West Boise with the lien from Shavrer Lateral placed on it and a neighbor told BoiseDev the owner does not live at the property, but visits occasionally to keep up the yard.

Two other homes had liens for $2,965.51 and $1,745.48. Owners of the homes declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Falling through the cracks

Fish’s account was made even more complicated by the fact that her home is located in two irrigation districts: Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District and Settlers Irrigation District. 

This means that although previous property owners had given up the parcel’s water rights through Nampa-Meridian in December of 1991, she still had rights through Settlers and was allowed to be billed by Shavrer Lateral. Both irrigation districts are separate entities and don’t exchange information when a property is excluded to see if the owner is excluded from the other or if they would like to. 

This system sets up some homeowners, like Fish, to think they have no water rights and aren’t liable to pay, while still being open to legal liability if they don’t exclude from all of the irrigation districts impacting their home. 

There is no statewide database or repository tracking who is excluded from what districts for any irrigation district or water user association to access. If someone wishes to give up their water rights, they must ensure they are excluded at all levels, with ale entities overseeing their water rights. 

Ada County Clerk spokesperson Chelsea Carratini said the county tracks information related to water rights and who has excluded, but they have no obligation to notify anyone that a property is excluded or even if the ownership changed. 

“In this case, our office acts only as a repository for the recorded documents,” she said. “We don’t have involvement in the irrigation district to notify anyone of anything or track anything.”

More to read

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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