Kern County supervisors awarded $16,195 to two former employees of the Golden Hills Sanitation Company who kept the district running after owner Carlie Smith died and his estate refused to maintain the plant.

Golden Hills serves about 166 low-income residences in the Tehachapi area, county staff told supervisors.

The employees operated as Aqua Operations and, county staff said, helped prevent the failure of the plant and protected the residences' access to sewer service until a receiver could take over operation of the plant in a more permanent capacity.

Aqua claimed the payment was needed to recover the costs the company incurred for operating the plant in the interim.

Area resident Adrian Maaskant, however, told supervisors they should be ashamed of giving former Sanitation Company manager Clint Hilderbrand, who ran Aqua, money to do work he was also paid to do by the Sanitation Company.

He said it was an illegal gift of public funds.

Supervisors disagreed. They voted 4-0, with Supervisor Mick Gleason absent, to make the payment.

"The legal issue is whether payment of public funds to Aqua Operations and (Hilderbrand) is a gift of public funds," said County Counsel Theresa Goldner.

She said because the payment serves the public service of keeping the sewage plant open, she does not believe it is a gift of public funds.

"What Aqua Operations did in staying on and running the plant did serve a public purpose -- it prevented an environmental disaster," Goldner said.

Supervisors also approved a $51,700 payment to the current receiver operating the plant to cover the cost of maintaining the ailing facility.

Maaskant called that payment a justified use of public money.