Commentary – Last week, the Davis City Council made a mistake – whether they feared the uncertainty of the untested rate structure or the public cries of a certain newspaper columnist – the council voted not only to move away from the WAC-recommended CBFR rate structure, but to preclude them from discussing it.
It is ironic that when the WAC was created, the Vanguard was not only a skeptic of the board, but an outright critic, fearing the likelihood that the body would merely rubberstamp the preferences of the members who appointed them.
So it is perhaps fitting that the final coup de grâce for the WAC was to disprove that notion, once and for all, by quite probably saving the project from near certain electoral defeat by sticking to their guns and reiterating the support of CBFR, even when the council told them not to.
We may never know for sure why the council ultimately changed their minds. We know there were a lot of discussions behind the scenes – some of them heated and passionate. In the end, we knew that some compromise would emerge when Dan Wolk and Rochelle Swanson came forward with compromise language very early Tuesday morning.
It was a compromise similar to what was floated by Mayor Joe Krovoza last week – for a two-year term of Bartle Wells, followed by three years of CBFR.
While Brett Lee pushed for what would have been our preference of one year of Bartle Wells, the end result was actually about 20 months of Bartle Wells with the new rates kicking in on May 1, 2013, and the CBFR on January 1, 2015, using the summer of 2014 numbers.
That quells one of the biggest calls of unfairness that people’s rates would be based on summer 2012 numbers when they did not get fair warning. Despite the fact that most people, even without fair warning, would have been advantaged by CBFR from the outset, the council felt there was a legitimate fairness issue.
The other strongest criticism was the rate tier structure. The council haggled over which arrangement to go with. In the end, they decided to stick with the inclining rate structure, but expanding the first tier out to 18 ccf for the Bartle Wells portion of the cycle. When it moves to CBFR, however, they would utilize the uniform block rate.
Despite the protests about the rates, the actual differences here were relatively small. The same cannot be said for the difference between Bartle Wells and CBFR.
In an effort to make the twenty months of Bartle Wells more fair and also more similar to the current rate structure, council modified Bartle Wells, from the 50-50 fixed to variable rate ratio, to a 40-60 mix. That means 40% of the bills from May 2013 until December 2014 will be a fixed rate based on meter size, the remaining 60% will be variable.
It is again a small difference, but it does reduce the cost on the low end by about $3. The result is that the low-end users are still disadvantaged by this system over Loge-Williams, but now by $7 the first year rather than a full $10.
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs argued that, while he always favored moving toward CBFR, he was concerned previously about risk, “the risk of taking this, such a big issue, but in the past week having talked to not only the city’s financial advisor, but a number of folks in the bonding industry, I felt much more comfortable in moving in this direction.”
As Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk and Councilmember Rochelle Swanson put it in their statement early Thursday, “We had our concerns. The rate structure is unfamiliar to many members of our community, having only recently been invented in Davis by WAC members Frank Loge and Matt Williams. We were also concerned about an aspect of that structure that would have tied Davis water consumers to rates based on past summer usage without having the opportunity to warn people ahead of time.”
They argued in recent days, “A compromise option has been raised in our community.”
It is perhaps telling that this compromise was largely available last week.
What changed? Perhaps it was the clear picture that, while the rate structure may be new, it is at the same time much more fair than the alternatives.
Mayor Joe Krovoza said on Tuesday, “The big picture is that the community is moving forward with a much needed water project and we figured out the most equitable way to spread those costs on a community that’s going to be sharing in the costs and with the very strong conservation incentives that we built in to the CBFR – we’re going to make sure that this project lasts this city for years and years and years.”
He added, “Without this innovative rate structure I could see us coming to a knee sooner. With this rate structure, we’re going to lay off of our ground water even more which is going to protect a resource for this community that is irreplaceable.”
The Vanguard believes that the council made a mistake last week moving away from a rate structure that was not only innovative, but fundamentally more fair than the alternatives.
Whatever advantage the proponents of the project might have gained in clarity, they would have lost in equity.
While the Vanguard will not take a position on the ultimate question that is before the voters – whether or not Davis should go forward with the surface water project, the Vanguard believes that the city could not go forward with a rate structure that charged someone $60 who only used 5 ccf.
It was patently unfair and more expensive to three-quarters of our residents. It is not that the rates will not go up under CBFR, it is simply that they will do so in a more fair and equitable way than under Bartle Wells.
With Bartle Wells in place, this measure surely would have gone down to resounding defeat. While the implementation of this compromise does not guarantee victory for Measure I, it puts it at least on even footing.
Now it is up to the two campaigns to make their case to the voters of the city of Davis. It should be an interesting debate. We look forward to covering it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting