Mr. Dunning writes, “Although the proponents of our innovative, only-in-Davis water rate structure aren’t eager for this information to get into the public consciousness, the plain fact of the matter is that once the consumption-based fixed rate system is fully functional in 2018, every ccf of water you use in the summer will cost you $7.80 annually, while the same ccf you use in the winter will cost $1.32.”
Where he arrives at his $7.80 number and how he uses this information became the subject of a California Public Records Act request, producing Mr. Dunning’s email exchanges with all city officials and employees, including Dianna Jensen, the City of Davis’ Principal Civil Engineer.
The records show that Mr. Dunning would subsequently, after not getting the specific answer he sought from Ms. Jensen, take his numbers to an unsuspecting Davis City Council and practice a form of “gotcha-ambush journalism” on the councilmembers, by distorting and misrepresenting their responses.
How does Bob Dunning come up with the figure $7.80? He explains how in a multi-day email exchange with Dianna Jensen during the week leading up to the column, as follows, “The first ccf costs $1.32. […] You then pay for that ccf 12 times – once a month for every month of the next year – at 54 cents. That’s $6.48, plus $1.32 for a total of $7.80,” he writes. “If you hadn’t used that ccf, your water bill for the year would be $7.80 less. Therefore, it cost you $7.80. Six times as much as the ccf you used on April 30 cost you.”
“With every ccf used between May 1 and October 31, you are paying six times as much as a ccf used between Nov. 1 and April 30. Were you unaware of this? When you use a ccf between May 1 and October 31, you pay for it 13 separate times, once at $1.32 and 12 times at 54 cents.”
While Mr. Dunning’s math is right, his concept is wrong. The Variable Use Charge is indeed a per usage charge, but the Supply Charge in CBFR is a fixed charge based on the need for sizing the system to peak use. In doing his math, Mr. Dunning conveniently ignores the fact that the 2018 version of the current fixed charge (the Base Rate) will be decreasing from $27.25 per month down to $13.67 per month . . . or that the 2018 version of the SFR Tier 1 Metered Rate Charge will be decreasing from $3.55 per ccf down to $1.50 per ccf ($4.50 down to $1.50 in Tier 2).
Ms. Jensen tries to help Mr. Dunning out of his self-induced fog by clearly explaining, “Our water system is sized on our peak use. If we had a more consistent use of water throughout the year, our system would be sized on max day plus fire flow. When looking at meeting demand needs, a water purveyor must compare these two numbers and size the system for whichever is higher. In addition to that, it is a requirement to have adequate source water to meet max day, and storage can be used for peaking and fire flow. The Supply Charge in the CBFR rate structure uses the peak water use months so that the users pay for the new supply (be it surface water, or wells) based on their percentage of use of the system during this time. If our peak use can be lowered over time, we will not need to increase the capacity of surface water, or build a new storage tank, for many years.”
Mr. Dunning quickly responds by e-mail that Ms. Jensen, who knows this project and the rates as well as anyone, doesn’t know what she is talking about, because he simply does not want to accept (or even consider) this explanation of the system and how the two charges differ. The “story” he plans to use in his column simply doesn’t have traction if he acknowledges the truth of what Ms. Jensen has told him.
In his column, Mr. Dunning writes, “When I presented these figures to the above-referenced city of Davis expert, the reply was a seemingly incredulous ‘Where did you get $7.80 per ccf?’ “ He then quips, “In other words, this individual apparently hadn’t done the math.”
Math may indeed be the problem, but there is other possibility – and the accurate one – that Mr. Dunning was misconceiving how the system worked and was told so by Ms. Jensen. His problem escalates when Ms. Jensen ends her e-mail with an offer Mr. Dunning doesn’t want to hear when she says, “Happy to explain more if you have time for a phone call tomorrow.”
Mr. Dunning fires back an e-mail to Ms. Jensen that begins, “No, no, no.”
Plowing forward on his crusade, Mr. Dunning’s column goes on to note, “My city ‘expert,’ while not disputing the accuracy of my figures, nonetheless protested that I was confusing ‘variable’ charges with ‘supply’ charges and said I was making it look as if the city was charging people twice for the same ccf of water.”
But in her e-mails to Mr. Dunning, Ms. Jensen very clearly disputes the accuracy of Mr. Dunning’s figures, “The way you have described it is like you are paying twice for the same ccf, which is not true.”
An easy question we can all ask Mr. Dunning is, what is it about the words “which is not true” that you do not understand?
Ms. Jensen doesn’t explain the concept just once in writing, she explains it twice. “The May-Oct volume is used to determine your percentage of water used by the whole City for that same time frame. Your CBFR charge is then related to your percentage of use. For the people who use more, they will pay a higher percentage of the bill for the following year. Since its water used during this time frame that drives the size of the project, it makes sense to apportion that cost relative to use. […] “You’ve taken the fixed supply charge, and turned it into a per ccf ($7.80). Which I think is more confusing, but everyone looks at things differently.”
After peppering Ms. Jensen with a series of “You’re wrong” responses, Mr. Dunning changes tactics and pounces on unsuspecting Davis City councilmembers with the disingenuous question, “Can you please explain to me how (in 2018) charging $7.80 per ccf in summer and $1.32 in winter meets Prop. 218’s requirement of ‘proportionality?’ “
In his Sunday, February 17, column he justifies the question as follows, “A fair question, since ‘proportionality’ seems to be at the heart of this debate. Now, since we have three lawyers on the council, I figured one of them might be able to tell me in his or her own words exactly why this thing passes muster with Prop. 218. No such luck.”
As noted earlier, the person who knows this project and the rates, as well as anyone, had to ask Mr. Dunning to clarify how he derived the $7.80 figure, but somehow he expects the councilmembers to be able to provide him with a different answer. The truth is that if they did indeed provide him with a different answer, then we are in serious trouble.
The good news is that, as they should in such situations, several members of the council forwarded Dunning’s question to City Manager Steve Pinkerton, who provided them with an explanation that is almost identical to the one Dianna Jensen gave Mr. Dunning in their e-mail exchange.
Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk forwarded the City Manager’s response to Dunning, who then hit the roof because the answer mirrored Ms. Jensen’s. His frustration with the consistency of the Jensen/Pinkerton answers resulted in his Sunday column, “City tries to shoot the messenger.”
Recognizing that attacking the message wasn’t getting him anywhere, Mr. Dunning decided to attack the messengers. First he goes after Pinkerton, “Now they’re getting personal,” he writes. “In a classic case of shooting the messenger, City Manager Steve Pinkerton sent a circle-the-wagons memo to all five City Council members and various city staffers involved with the water project, attempting to discredit the Above-Pictured Columnist. Worse yet, he did it on the public dime.”
Next he lashes out at councilmembers, noting that only Brett Lee took a stab at his question, “telling me he was ‘puzzled’ by my numbers.”
“Do the math, councilman, and you will no longer be puzzled,” Bob Dunning quips in a rather crass and over-the-top manner, particularly in light of the rather pleasant email exchange that he and Brett Lee appeared to have.
In fact, a review of their email exchange demonstrates that Bob Dunning did a great disservice to Mr. Lee, who had spent the most time of any of the councilmembers at the WAC meetings, and probably knows the rate structure as well as anyone in this community, other than those who derived it.
Brett Lee writes, “I am a little puzzled by the numbers used in your example. […] Have they been created based on the idea that summertime usage generates the next years CBFR fee, so that comparatively, 1ccf used in winter costs less than 1ccf of summertime usage?”
“If you are talking about bills you receive at that moment in time, I do not believe the numbers you have are accurate,” the Councilmember continues. “If you are looking at the bigger, long term picture, then yes, someone’s summertime usage generates additional expense for the following year and can thus be thought of as generating more ‘cost’ than wintertime usage.”
“Puzzled” is far from an accurate description of a thoughtful and lengthy email exchange, in which Brett Lee demonstrates solid knowledge of his subject. Remember, Bob Dunning sprung these numbers of the council without context and the councilmembers had to determine for themselves what he meant by them.
Mr. Dunning then returns his fire toward Steve Pinkerton.
He charges, “Interesting that Pinkerton didn’t have the common courtesy to send me a copy of the memo, given that I was the one requesting the information in the first place. No, this was damage control, pure and simple. For their eyes only.”
Given Mr. Dunning’s long exchange with Dianna Jensen and emails with the councilmembers, if Mr. Dunning was truly looking for an answer to his question it is curious that he never once sent his questions to either Steve Pinkerton or, for that matter, Herb Niederberger – at least in the emails we received from the city.
“Pinkerton, lovingly referring to me as ‘the columnist’ throughout his memo, suggested that I am confused about how the consumption-based fixed rate actually works.” Dunning continues, but here too he misses the point.
The city manager did not write that Mr. Dunning was “confused,” as though that were a personal attack, but rather he wrote that Mr. Dunning’s figures confuse the purpose of the fixed cost with the variable or volumetric charge. This is, in fact, the exact same point that Dianna Jensen had tried to explain to Mr. Dunning the week before.
When Mr. Dunning did not get the answer he wanted from Ms. Jensen, he moved on and ambushed the council with the same question and no context.
Mr. Dunning continues, “Incredibly, Pinkerton ends his memo to council members and staff by claiming the supply charge ‘is not a variable charge.’ He then tries to solidify the claim by saying ‘The variable charge is the only charge that is based on actual consumption of water.’ “
What Mr. Pinkerton said was, “It is not a variable charge, it is a calculation to determine the customer’s share of the cost of building, operating and maintaining the water system. The variable charge is the only charge that is based on actual consumption of water.”
This gets back to the point that Dianna Jensen made earlier, and the problem here is that one charge is being used to assess water use, that is the variable charge, while the other charge is being used to estimate the customer’s share of the impact on water capacity.
It happens to be based on actual usage. As we know from showing the calculations during the election, the other means to assess impact is strictly meter size. That is a far more crude measure and it results in those at the lower ends of use subsidizing those at the top end.
Incredibly, in his exchange with Brett Lee he argues, “Bartle Wells is much, much closer to proportionality because each month you’re paying for what you use.”
Bob Dunning couldn’t be more wrong here. In fact, the problem with the Bartle Wells system is that you aren’t paying for what you use, you are paying for the size of your meter, which means that the people who use less water actually pay a lot more, per gallon or ccf, than those who use more water.
But Mr. Dunning is entitled to his opinion – taking people’s answers and distorting them is more questionable.
—David M. Greenwald reporting