Tom McCarthy, head of the Mojave Water Agency, was named as the new General Manager for the Kern County Water Agency at its board of directors meeting Thursday.
Agency directors approved a five-year contract for McCarthy including total compensation “not to exceed $415,000 annually,” plus $60,000 in relocation fees.
“This was a very difficult decision for me,” McCarthy said Friday. “I’m excited to lead an agency like Kern but I’ve been very happy here at Mojave.”
He said he was attracted to Kern because of its size, complexity and “there are so many passionate stakeholders. That was very interesting to me.”
Though he noted the agency’s most pressing challenge, like most water agencies in the state, is how to make up for the reduced reliability of the State Water Project, he wasn’t sure yet of how much of his time would be focused on statewide issues versus local.
“I’m still trying to get a feel for the relationship between the member units and the agency.”
The agency has 13 “member units,” or agricultural water districts that contract through the agency for about a million acre feet of State Water Project water.
Those water districts can be a contentious bunch, each with its own unique concerns.
The agency is also very much a public entity, with part of its funding coming from property and pump taxes.
McCarthy isn’t a stranger to controversy and a diverse group of stakeholders. The Mojave agency covers nearly 5,000 square miles in the high desert area of San Bernardino County. It acts as a wholesaler to a variety of water retailers including the city of Victorville. It is also the watermaster for the area, executing a court order that apportions water for a large part of its territory.
The Mojave agency has been both creative and aggressive in dealing with its water issues. It created one of the first water markets in the state and has a robust outreach program for residents. It has also made some significant water purchases. In 2009, it paid Kings County farmer John Vidovich $73 million for rights to 5,000 acre feet of State Water Project water.
McCarthy will go from overseeing 40 employees and a $50 million annual budget at the Mojave agency, to 60 employees and a $365 million budget at the Kern agency.
McCarthy’s total pay at Mojave in 2018 was $244,660 plus benefits of $46,807 for a total compensation package of $291,467, according to Transparent California.
In Kern, McCarthy will earn a base salary of $380,016 per year plus benefits for a total package of $416,000, according to his contract.
Though the amount of McCarthy’s compensation raised some eyebrows in the Kern agency’s board room on Thursday, comments about McCarthy were all positive.
”I don’t know him personally, but I’ve seen his leadership style and I think we’ve got a good hire,” said Kern Delta Water District General Manager Mark Mulkay.
Agency board members who have met with McCarthy described him as measured and thoughtful.
“This is the single biggest decision this board will make,” said Director Gene Lundquist, noting that agency general managers tend to stick around. “They don’t leave in just a year or two.”
Despite the high pay and prestige of running the second-largest contractor on the State Water Project, McCarthy did not apply for the job.
It was Director Ted Page who pursued McCarthy after watching how he handled himself as the lead representative for State Water Contractors during negotiations with the Department of Water Resources over the proposed “delta tunnel.”
The tunnel project, which was reduced from two tunnels to one when Gov. Newsom took office, would move water from the Sacramento River under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as a means of protecting water supply in case of an earthquake and to avoid impacts to threatened fish.
It is extremely controversial among environmental groups and delta farmers who argue it is another water grab by farms and cities to the south.
Negotiations were highly charged but Page said McCarthy calmly and intelligently represented water contractors.
After watching McCarthy in those negotiations, Page reached out to him and had an initial meeting in Lancaster shortly after Thanksgiving.
It took some coaxing to get McCarthy to consider the Kern job, said Page. In fact, he said, it was the agency’s General Counsel Amelia Minaberrigarai who did most of the heavy lifting, answering questions and touring McCarthy and his family around Bakersfield.
McCarthy’s official start date is March 30 but he won’t be on full time until sometime in June, after his high-school-aged children are able to make the move.
During that time, Minaberrigarai will continue handling some of the General Manager duties, as she has since former General Manager Curtis Creel announced his retirement last September.
At Thursday’s meeting, the board also amended Minaberrigarai’s contract to include an extra $100,000 and 200 hours of vacation for her continuing efforts as acting General Manager. That is on top of her annual salary of $308,006.40 (after a 15 percent raise last year) and 200 hours vacation.
Just before announcing his retirement, Creel earned $292,530 in total pay plus $166,690 in benefits, for a total package of $459,220 in 2018, according to Transparent California.