Analysis: Differing Views on Water Rate Initiative

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This weekend the Davis Enterprise came out against the water rate initiative put forward by Michael Harrington, Pam Nieberg and Ernie Head.

“Let the court decide whether rates are proportional under the law,” they argue.  “The people have spoken. Now, it’s time to move on.”

“We supported that election, believing that a project of that magnitude – and that cost – should be decided by the people, not just by our elected representatives,” the Enterprise writes.  “But we are a representative democracy, and we put our trust in our elected officials to make important decisions on our behalf. If we disagree with those decisions, we have the opportunity to unseat those officials in the next election.”

The Vanguard is not taking a position on the initiative.  However, columnist Bob Dunning argues, “This is an initiative about a confusing and unfair rate structure that punishes some citizens and rewards others instead of treating us all as equals by charging everyone the same per-gallon rate.”

He, of course, ignores the fact that the rate structure he opposes actually comes far closer to charging everyone the same per-gallon rate than previous iterations.

Mr. Dunning takes umbrage at the comment by Davis Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk who “dismissed the effort” (in Mr. Dunning’s words) as “just the latest in a long string of attempts to block our community’s access to clean surface water.”

Mr. Dunning, who appears surprised by the mayor pro tem’s comment, writes, “It’s also distressing when an elected official denigrates the initiative process, which is seen by many as a last resort when officialdom goes down a path the citizenry might not approve of…

“I realize that letting the people vote on something of such importance is scary stuff for a sitting City Council member, but if 50.1 percent of the electorate agrees with Councilman Wolk, he has nothing to worry about … had the rates been on the ballot last March as they should have been, along with the city’s sudden decision to add fluoride to the water, the outcome on the project itself may very well have been different … letting the people have their say is never a bad idea …”

Enterprise Editor Debbie Davis counters, “While it’s true that the people didn’t directly approve of the new water rate structure in the Measure I election, the rates were thoroughly vetted in a wide-ranging community discussion during the water project campaign this winter and spring.”

The Enterprise does not disagree with challenging the rates in the court and allowing that process to play out – they, however, do not agree with the challenge.

Ms. Davis writes, “The focus of a lawsuit filed by Yolo Ratepayers for Affordable Public Utility Service” argues “that they disproportionately charge ratepayers for the water they consume. We do not agree with that allegation.”

She adds, “We believe the consumption-based fixed rate model – albeit difficult to explain and to understand – fairly apportions the fixed costs of the expensive new water project among all users and fairly bills users for their monthly consumption.”

The Vanguard agrees on the CBFR.  However, Ms. Davis misses a critical factual point here.  CBFR is only part of the rate structure that was implemented, as from May 1, 2013 until December 31, 2014, the city will be under Bartle Wells rates.

There is a good deal of disagreement here as to the proportionality of those rates.  The problem with the rates is as discussed a number of times, in that lower-end users end up paying far more per gallon than higher-end users.

It is highly ironic that Bob Dunning’s attacks on CBFR, based on their charging different amounts per gallon, led to a system that charges even greater differential amounts per gallon.

However, defenders will note that if Bartle Wells goes down, so too would many if not most other rate systems in the state.  Moreover, the proportionality test for Prop 218 is not within each rate class, but among the rate classes.

The real question is whether a judge is willing to strike down a rate that went through the entire Prop 218 requirements and, while the rates were not directly placed on the ballot, there was a current voter process.

As the Enterprise notes, “If Judge Dan Maguire agrees, and finds the rates to be proportionate under Prop. 218′s requirements, they will stand, and city leaders can move on to secure the necessary financing for the water project. If Maguire agrees with the plaintiffs and tosses the rates out, the City Council will begin the Prop. 218 rate-setting process once again.”

The Enterprise argues, “Either way, this initiative is unnecessary – a waste of our time and our money.”

The Enterprise may argue that the initiative is unnecessary – unless one believes as Michael Harrington, Pam Nieberg, Ernie Head and Bob Dunning that the Prop 218 process was unfair, excluding key classes of people, and that Measure I was not a direct vote on the rates, but rather only the project itself.

As Bob Dunning argues, “The council has never given the people a chance to vote on the rates … for obvious reasons … the council could have put the rates on the ballot last March, but declined to do so.”

The city still disputes that contention, but it seems odd that Mr. Harrington can put the rates on the ballot, but not the city.

What we do know is that, based on these challenges, the amount that ratepayers will have to pay is going way up – if the project can still move forward after all of the challenges and initiatives put forward by the opposition.

This, of course, has led to some rather negative comments from those in the community favoring the project and who have disdain for what they see as obstructionism.

The Enterprise column notes, “One of the initiative’s proponents acknowledged in The Enterprise that he hopes the maneuver stops the city from moving forward with the surface water project.”

Then again, we always believed that the city was asking for challenges when it declined to put the rates directly on the ballot or hold the election after the Prop 218 was approved.  And if it turns out the rates are unconstitutional, it is difficult to blame the messenger.

It seems like cooler heads will not prevail on this and we are in for a fight for the long term.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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5 thoughts on “Analysis: Differing Views on Water Rate Initiative”

  1. B. Nice

    “As Bob Dunning argues, “The council has never given the people a chance to vote on the rates … for obvious reasons … the council could have put the rates on the ballot last March, but declined to do so.”

    What’s the reason the city didn’t put the rates on the ballot?

  2. Practical

    Timing. They were afraid that a 60-90 day delay in holding the election would delay the project by a year because of construction seasons. 20/20 hindsight says that that 60-90 day interval evaporated when the RFP process simplified as a result of the number of bidders going down to one.

  3. Steve Hayes

    Bob Dunning…had the rates been on the ballot last March as they should have been, along with the city’s sudden decision to add fluoride to the water, the outcome on the project itself may very well have been[/i] different … letting the people have their say is never a bad idea …”

    Bob’s statement (above) highlights a problem for many Davis citizens. On vital issues such as these, many now do not fully trust the DCC and the management of the Woodland-Davis SWP to act in their best interests.

  4. B. Nice

    [quote] On vital issues such as these, many now do not fully trust the DCC and the management of the Woodland-Davis SWP to act in their best interests.[/quote]

    Why not?

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