Some See Water Initiative, as Worded, Problematic At Best

Vote-stock-slideA number of people who have been among the core supporters of the water referendum are expressing concerns about the wording of the initiative and have explicit concerns that the initiative may actually doom the water referendum.

The referendum is a simple up or down vote on the water rate hikes.  Should that pass, the city council would have to go back and draw up water rate hikes that the public would be more willing to accept.

However, an initiative would actually re-write municipal code and put specific language updating city policies and ordinances.

There are two key provisions to this initiative.

The first is repealing the rate hikes passed on September 7 by the Davis City Council: “This initiative, if passed by a majority of the voters voting on the measure, would repeal the water rate increases adopted by the City Council in September 2011 that increase water rates over the next five years to provide funding for water system capital improvements, including the surface water project, and other water system costs.”

The first part is basically a re-wording of the referendum that has been debated for the past month.

The second part is even more controversial: “The initiative would reduce current water rates and limit future water rate increases to an annual amount not to exceed the increase in the consumer price index (‘CPI’).”

The Vanguard has an inquiry in with City Attorney Harriet Steiner, but multiple sources do not believe that water rates can be forcibly linked to CPI.  Several sources told the Vanguard that they would expect the courts to quickly throw this language out, probably before the initiative ever gets to the voters.

Leaving aside the issue of legality, it is unclear why water rates ought to be tied to CPI.  If water rates were based on labor costs, as other forms of government are, then you might have a legitimate justification for such a linkage.

The problem is that water rates, unlike most other areas of government, are largely linked to capital costs.  That means in the ordinary course of maintaining even the existing system, rates may have to be increased even if the economy is going down.

So, what the initiative would do, in effect, is force the council to take it to a vote any time that there is a major repair job or capital upgrade to existing services needed.

In fact, it is not even clear how the city would be able to pay its water fines under such a scheme.

The better approach here would have been the simpler approach.  If the concern is that the council is passing rate hikes that are too onerous and putting forth water projects that we do not need, then there a remedy available that does not tie the council’s hands in such a draconian way.

The remedy is simple and it actually fixes the problem with the Prop 218 approach: require a direct vote by the people in order to undertake major capital projects.  You can define what those projects are, but this is essentially a Measure J scenario for water.

Will the public support that?  Hard to know.  But at the very least it codifies the sense that a lot of people who actually signed the referendum had – namely, they believed that the people who got to vote on Target, for crying out loud, should get to vote on the water project.

It also fixes most of our concerns about the Prop 218 process.  We have written, time and again, that the Prop 218 process disadvantages, and in fact disenfranchised, the majority of the people in this city who rent rather than own their own property.  And yet, they still have the costs passed through to them.

The initiative process would not replace the Prop 218 process, meaning that property owners, who do not reside in Davis and could not vote in the election, would be able to protest future water rates as they do now under Prop 218.

As Don Shor wrote, “If Ernie Head and Jim Stevens wanted the public to vote on the water project, they should have drafted an initiative to do that specifically. Then they could explain how they feel the city should deal with the pending water quality regulations and the long-term issue of pumping from the intermediate aquifer.”

To an extent, they will have to do that in order to get this initiative passed, but in general I think Mr. Shor is correct that “this initiative would preclude the city from replacing its current wells, from digging a single new well, or from bringing in any surface water from any source.”

As such, it would make it difficult for the city to maintain its water supply, critics maintain.

Mr. Shor wrote, “Ernie Head and Jim Steven’s initiative would be far worse. It would constrain the city from even replacing existing wells. I can see how the populace would have to vote on every modification to the existing infrastructure, one well at a time.”

We do not see a problem putting this particular project up for a vote, or projects of this magnitude, but to do it to replace every well, to upgrade any equipment, seems overly onerous and problematic to the smooth functioning of municipal government.

A huge fear of many is that having a competing initiative will confuse the issue of the referendum.  The initiative is easy enough to get on the ballot.

Signature gatherers for the referendum had to collect over 3800 signatures in 30 days – a tough task that ultimately required paid signature gatherers.

The initiative has nearly six months to qualify for the ballot, in 180 days, and it only requires 1136 valid signatures to qualify, as opposed to the much higher number for the referendum.

Several people that the Vanguard spoke to suggested that Mr. Head and Mr. Stevens  take a step back or they may actually defeat the referendum that they worked so hard qualify for the ballot.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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23 Comments

  1. hpierce

    It will be interesting…. if the referendum qualifies, it appears that the referendum will need to be voted on in June… if the initiative folks take full advantage of time, the initiative could not be voted on until November. The measures will conflict, and, as I understand it, if both are approved by the voters, the initiative would govern. Is this what Head/Stevens/Harrington have been advocating? Careful what you wish for.

  2. davisite2

    “….this initiative would preclude the city from replacing its current wells, from digging a single new well, or from bringing in any surface water from any source.”

    I would guess that simply not calling a ballot measure to raise money for needed capital costs a “rate hike” could very well be possible without violating the initiative, if enacted. Is this initiative concept so different from a Measure J vote or our multiple parcel taxes that require a majority vote of the Davis electorate to raise the money needed to maintain or school system?

  3. Observer

    [quote]Signature gatherers for the referendum had to collect over 3800 signatures in 30 days – a tough task that ultimately required paid signature gatherers.[/quote]

    I’d still like to know who paid them and why.

  4. hpierce

    Another interesting concept… require an election, with majority approval, to approve major water-related projects… then, if the project(s) are approved, require another election, requiring a “super-majority” vote (2/3 vs. the 60% required for the City Council to do anything) to actually fund the projects that the simple majority wants. Looks like direct democracy will be interesting/fun… and expensive for elections. To paraphrase an old expression, direct democracy is not free.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    “I’d still like to know who paid them and why. “

    The why is obvious, they weren’t going to get enough signatures in the 30 day period without paying people to work. Doesn’t really matter to me who paid them, though I would assume Head/ Harrington.

  6. hpierce

    I’m going to bet that, at the end of the day, between Mike’s and Ernie’s connections, neither of them are out “one red cent” for their effort, except, perhaps, Mike’s loss of ‘billable hours’… it would also not surprise me if, to some extent, Mike’s hours wer paid.

  7. Herman

    I think the initiative muddies the waters in ways that are too complex for me to fully think through now. It’s very unlikely but what if the initiative were to pass and the referendum fail? How does the water project get paid for? In general, while a strong advocate of the referendum my inclination is to oppose the initiative at this point.

    On the issue of paid signature gatherers a couple of points: 1) I really do not think opponents should complain. No one was forced to sign, any more than they are forced to vote, and by giving opponents of a city council decision only 30 days to get 3,700 signatures paid signature gatherers are almost a necessity for ref. to have any chance at all of qualifying–just try getting signatures on anything to find out for yourself; 2) As for who paid for it all I don’t know and don’t care that much. But has it ever occurred to proponents that businesses opposed to the huge water rate increases may have at least chipped in?

  8. Matt Williams

    davisite2 said . . .

    [i]”I would guess that simply not calling a ballot measure to raise money for needed capital costs a “rate hike” could very well be possible without violating the initiative, if enacted. Is this initiative concept so different from a Measure J vote or our multiple parcel taxes that require a majority vote of the Davis electorate to raise the money needed to maintain or school system?”[/i]

    Far easier d2 would be if the initiative were not directed at the rates, but rather at Capital expenditures that rise above a prescribed dollar threshold. That would make sense in your “parallel to Measure J” thinking.

    It appears that Head and Stevens haven’t taken the time to think this through before throwing it out into the public arena.

  9. Matt Williams

    Herman said . . .

    [i]”On the issue of paid signature gatherers a couple of points: 1) I really do not think opponents should complain. No one was forced to sign, any more than they are forced to vote, and by giving opponents of a city council decision only 30 days to get 3,700 signatures paid signature gatherers are almost a necessity for ref. to have any chance at all of qualifying–just try getting signatures on anything to find out for yourself;”[/i]

    I concur Herman.

  10. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]It also fixes most of our concerns about the Prop 218 process. We have written, time and again, that the Prop 218 process disadvantages, and in fact disenfranchised, the majority of the people in this city who rent rather than own their own property. And yet, they still have the costs passed through to them.[/quote]

    The problem with this logic is:
    1) Landlords cannot pass through all the costs of the water rate increases, or they risk renters going elsewhere where the rent is cheaper;
    2) Renters, bc they are not metered, have/can waste water to their hearts content, and not “pay the piper” for their exorbitant water use.

    [quote]So, what the initiative would do, in effect, is force the council to take it to a vote any time that there is a major repair job or capital upgrade to existing services needed.

    In fact, it is not even clear how the city would be able to pay its water fines under such a scheme.[/quote]

    So in effect, voters should be careful what they wish for. As some have said on this blog, when the public votes on complex issues that are difficult to understand, they do not always realize the ramifications of what they are doing, as in the case of the initiative.

    [quote]The remedy is simple and it actually fixes the problem with the Prop 218 approach: require a direct vote by the people in order to undertake major capital projects. You can define what those projects are, but this is essentially a Measure J scenario for water.[/quote]

    Actually the remedy is not that simple. If the SWRCB decides to fine the city in a way that it does not financially gain from a refusal to come into compliance with the new water quality standards, if expensive wells are drilled into the deep level aquifer bc intermediate wells fail, if wells begin subsiding, if construction/finance costs increase, water rights are lost because the city did not act on them within a reasonable length of time, etc., the voters are not looking at the picture holistically or in the long run. The problem here is voters are not experts in water policy, nor construction engineers, nor are they in charge of what the SWRCB does. So voters are not really in a position to do a proper cost/benefit/risk analysis.

    For me, the tide turned when two UCD experts, totally unrelated to the surface water project, entered the picture and gave their opinion that the surface water project should be completed first and foremost. They were in no way benefitting from the project, so had no reason to give anything but their honest opinion. Every expert on record since has insisted the surface water project should be done first and foremost to save money on the wastewater treatment side. The fact of the matter is we have new water quality standards that must be met, come h_ll or high water (pardon the pun), because the federal gov’t says so – fines are mandatory, not discretionary.

    Thus far, the same people that are pushing for the referendum/initiative have not given a cogent Plan B if we do not complete the surface water project NOW. And that is key. If we do not build the surface water project NOW, WHAT THEN? WHAT IS THE BACK-UP PLAN THAT IS GOING TO BE LESS COSTLY, OR AT LEAST NOT ANY MORE COSTLY? I have as yet to hear opponents come up with anything even remotely reasonable. So if the city is faced with fines that take away any economic incentive to delay the surface water project, WHAT THEN? We will be fined as if we had paid for the surface water project, yet have nothing whatever to show for it, other than the costs of drilling new wells, the costs of shoring up a crumbling infrastructure, and of course the costs of fines (as Woodland has now)…

  11. Matt Williams

    If we are going to fix the Prop 218 process I’d like to see it handled as a “district” like the School District elections. Pass an initiative (or some such) that defines the voting area and who gets to vote. Hopefully State Law wouldn’t get in the way of that.

  12. rusty49

    ERM:

    “The problem with this logic is:
    1) Landlords cannot pass through all the costs of the water rate increases, or they risk renters going elsewhere where the rent is cheaper;
    2) Renters, bc they are not metered, have/can waste water to their hearts content, and not “pay the piper” for their exorbitant water use.”

    ERM, there is a problem with your logic, you just admitted that renters will most likely pay higher rents (even if they don’t get the total cost of the water passed on to them) so therefore they should have a vote. And because renters are not metered the landlords stand a big chance of getting gored by the higher tier water rates so IMO they’re going to have to pass the costs along to the renters.

  13. Matt Williams

    I tend to agree rusty. If you are going to be burdened by the rate increase you should have a vote.

    On a separate subject, would you like to participate in the meetings we are about to schedule to put together a series of objective balanced educational forums on the water/wastewater/rates/voting issues? If you do we would be pleased to have you join us in our organization steps as well as the actual forums themselves. Let me know.

  14. Ryan Kelly

    rusty49, I can’t imagine 2 bedroom apartments, without a clothes washer, uses much beyond Tier 1. So why would the rents go up much beyond the $50/month or so increase that landlords are normally do? If rents do rise and landlords try to pass on common area water use to their tenants, you have to figure that more students will share bedrooms – 2-3 to a bedroom – if rents rise. This gives more students to each apartment and thus greater water usage and thus greater cost.

  15. nprice

    Just what should water rates pay for and who should pay?
    What is the real cost for design and build? Could the Clean Water Agency contract to build? What about operate – operation by the not-for profit Clean Water Agency as a public service or by a for-profit investor-owned multinational corporation? Many surrounding municipalities operate drinking water treatment plants and large pipelines – why couldn’t the the Clean Water Agency create a public-public partnership with one of these municipalities? East Bay MUD and or San Francisco have used Public-Public partnerships when they’ve shared a common interest and thus shared expertise and training. Why not a partnership with East Bay MUD to train Woodland/Davis public works employees who live in these communities and have a stake in each city, rather than have employees that are likely to be brought in from elsewhere by the private operator? Afterall, Dennis Diemer, former General Manager of East Bay MUD, is now the new
    General Manager of the Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency. He could pioneer such a public-public partnership, a model used now by many municipalities in Latin America burned by privatization of water services.

    What is the real cost of water apart from the service? Is the real cost determined by corporate agriculture selling water from fallowed fields to thirty cities, thereby making a profit on what is fundamentally public water (that the state holds in trust for the public) which they have been allocated and have paid for at much lower cost?

  16. Rifkin

    [i]”Is the real cost determined by corporate agriculture selling water …”[/i]

    For the record, there is almost no ‘corporate agriculture’ in Yolo County, aside from the seed companies and processors. Almost every acre which is farmed or planted in orchard crops is a family farm operation, where they either lease their land (from a single family ownership*) or they own it.

    *Conaway Ranch is an exception to this. It is owned by a big developer. Other exceptions are lands which abut the four cities. Those parcels are often owned by developers. But in both types of cases, the farmers are not corporations. They are just family farmers. … Another growing exception is the farm land owned by the Cache Creek Casino tribe (the Wintuns). They have been buying farmland with the billions of dollars they have made in gambling profits.

  17. Sue Greenwald

    [quote]NOW, WHAT THEN? WHAT IS THE BACK-UP PLAN THAT IS GOING TO BE LESS COSTLY, OR AT LEAST NOT ANY MORE COSTLY? — [b]E. Roberts Musser[/b][/quote]I have described a plan that would be less costly, but it involves the city making a serious commitment to pursuing regulatory flexibility, including a salinity variance, and then trying to negotiate an affordable compromise involving phasing in some of the improvements.

    Davis has never tried. Cities that have tried have achieved a fair measure of success. We have a narrow window of opportunity with the new salinity variance program.

  18. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]I have described a plan that would be less costly, but it involves the city making a serious commitment to pursuing regulatory flexibility, including a salinity variance, and then trying to negotiate an affordable compromise involving phasing in some of the improvements. [/quote]

    Salinity variance? What chance? Delay the surface water project? At what cost, both in terms of money and subsidence and other repercussions?

  19. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Cities that have tried have achieved a fair measure of success.[/quote]

    From what I understand, Dixon tried and failed. Sacramento tried and failed…

  20. nprice

    I am not talking about Yolo corporate ag…but ag in general especially int the San Joaquin and Imperial Valley that is allowed to fallow fields and sell their water to municipalities for a profit.

  21. Mr.Toad

    In a confirmation of the arbitrary censorship that Dr Wu describes my post confirming his remarks was taken down for no reason other than they were critical of the censor’s failings.

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