Will Council Act to Put Water Initiative on the Ballot?

Ernie Head speaks during a press conference on January 23, outside of Davis City Hall flanked by other volunteer signature gatherers.

As we reported last week, the county clerk’s office certified more than 1800 petitions, a sufficient number to qualify the water rate initiative for the ballot.  The petitioners did themselves few favors, however, if they wanted the measure on for June 2014, as they waited until the last possible date to turn in the petitions.

Like the sales tax measure that the council is considering, the council has to act by Tuesday if they wish to put this on the ballot.

Staff, once again, is leaving the matter in the hands of council.  They have three options.  First, they can “refer the initiative to City staff for a report on the effects of the initiative and take no further action until March 11, 2014.”

Second, they can adopt the initiative without change in which case they would “direct staff to take actions necessary to implement the initiative.”

Finally, they could order the initiative be placed on the June 2014 ballot.  Writes staff, “If this option is chosen, approve the following Resolution: Resolution Ordering an Initiative Entitled ‘An Initiative Petition to Repeal Water Rates Applicable to the City of Davis Water System’ to the Ballot for the Previously Called June 3, 2014 Municipal and Special Election, Directing the City Attorney to Prepare an Impartial Analysis, and Providing for the Submittal of Primary and Rebuttal Arguments.”

If the council takes action on Tuesday, the initiative would be placed on the June 3, 2014, regular city election. “If the Council refers the initiative to staff for a report, the report would be returned to Council on March 11. At that time, the deadline to place items on the June ballot would have passed and the initiative measure would be set for a vote either at the June 2016 election or, at Council’s discretion, an earlier special election, such as the November 2014 election.”

In July of 2013, the proponents of the initiative submitted the initiative to the voters.  The initiative would repeal Section 39.03.030 of the Davis Municipal Code which increased utility rates generated on and after May 1, as well as Section 39.03.040 of the Davis Municipal Code, which set the Schedule of Water Supply Fee for those utility bills generated on and after January 1, 2015.

The initiative also would repeal Section 39.03.045 of the Davis Municipal Code, the Schedule of Metered Rate Charges for water used beginning May 1, 2013.

While Measure I dealt only with voter approval of the surface water project itself, this would repeal the Prop 218 process setting the water rates.  The target here would appear to be the CBFR structure and the accompanying rate increase.

In their language, Ms. Nieberg and Mr. Head argue, “The City Council of the City of Davis has approved substantially increased new rates charged for water use.”

“New rates approved by the City Council this year increase annually for the next five years,” they write in their initiative statement of proposed action.  “After the five year increase, the water bill paid by a typical, single-family residential customer (including new base rates and consumption fees) will have at least tripled.”

They argue, “The new, confusing Consumption Based Fixed Rate (CBFR) fee included in the new rates would base each rate payer’s monthly (January through December) water rates on the amount of water used during the 6-month peak consumption period (May through October) of the previous year.

“The resulting CBFR supply fee would significantly affect a typical water bill. One example is that Davis has an unusually high residential ‘household move rate’ per year, and the CBFR system would unfairly charge residents who recently moved into a home or apartment with last year’s occupants’ water consumption habits.

“This would: reduce current year conservation savings (why conserve now, when the rate payer is negatively impacted with last year’s households’ conduct); transfer a higher proportion of overall system costs to residential users with landscape irrigation needs; and penalize water use required during dry, hot summer months.”

“Such a large and rapid increase in water rates would have adverse financial effects on the City, schools, businesses, and individuals,” they continue, arguing, “City assumptions used to set new rates did not account for large users leaving the City water system or greatly reducing system use. Several such efforts are now in the planning stage.”

“The resulting smaller volume of water delivery would require additional rate increases to regain revenue from a reduced volume of water sold, because the new surface water project has very large fixed costs and borrowing that has to be paid back no matter if water demand plummets due to conservation caused by the new rates,” they argue.

They then attack the Prop 218 process, arguing, “Voters have not been given the opportunity at a regular, direct election to approve recent water rate increases, despite the voters’ clear statement in the successful Fall 2011 water rates referendum that the voters desired to repeal or vote upon such large increases.”

They add, “The people of the City of Davis desire to establish reasonable water rates that accurately represent the cost of providing water services to residents and business. By approving this initiative, voters will repeal the confusing, unfair and onerous CBFR rates that the City Council deliberately kept away from the voters by excluding these rates from the March 5, 2013 ballot with the surface water project.”

The initiative proponents submitted the signed initiative petitions on January 23, 2014, to the city clerk.

The city clerk then transmitted the remainder of the signed petitions to the Yolo County Clerk Recorder to determine whether the petitions contained a sufficient number of valid signatures. Because this is an initiative authorized under Proposition 218, to qualify for the ballot the initiative had to contain valid signatures totaling at least 5% of the number of votes cast by registered voters for all candidates for governor at the last gubernatorial election, staff writes.

The critical question is in council’s hands – whether to submit the initiative now to the voters in June or to delay and allow the issue to linger.

—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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  1. growth issue

    Dunning makes a good point this morning:

    “But come 2016 — if it’s even legally possible for the city to delay the vote that long — those who snoozed through the Great Rate Debate last year are going to have a dramatic shock to the system, not to mention the pocketbook, when they see their city water bills.”

    Yes, by 2016 the rates will have risen dramatically, lawns and gardens will be drying up all over town, and angry citizens might just seek relief at the ballot box.

    Better to let folks vote now, when the rates are still relatively low and flowers still bloom in the spring.”

  2. SODA

    “Will of the people or will of the council”? Seems strange that after gathering the required signatures, it will not lead directly to an election; that the group who made the decisions the petitioners are trying to overturn are in control of whether and when the vote grow through….anyone else wonder about this?
    also you say ‘the city clerk transferred the remainder of the signatures to County Recorder”….not the total?

  3. John Baldry

    I for one hope the Council shows courage on Tuesday night and directs staff to place the initiative question on the June 2014 ballot.

    It is time to put an end to the circus. The voters will see this initiative for what it truly is, the latest in a long line of Hail Mary attempts to kill the surface water project, and the vote against the initiative will overwhelmingly say to Michael Harrington, “Stop the insanity!”

  4. John Baldry

    Worth noting from today’s Enterprise.

    The following is an open letter to city leaders:

    This Tuesday night, the Davis City Council will take up the newly qualified initiative. It probably will be on the late-night agenda, unfortunately, but we are glad that it will be heard on such short notice. Thank you, city staff and the City Council, for putting it on the agenda.

    And thank you to County Elections Officer Freddie Oakley and her staff for validating and counting the signatures so quickly.

    Finally, it looks like Davis voters might have the opportunity to vote on the increased water rates. This voter input has been our main goal since we successfully qualified the fall 2011 referendum, only to see the City Council repeal the rates rather than putting them to a vote.

    The proponents understand that the City Council has a range of options for acting on the initiative, including sending it to the county for inclusion on the June 2014 local election ballot, or parking it to as late as June 2016.

    Although some might think it would be problematic to have it on the same ballot as other political and tax measures, we believe that putting it to an immediate citywide vote is by far the best option for the city. It would give all of us an up or down vote rather than continuing the uncertainty any longer than necessary.

    An early win for the city would put the rubber stamp of the voters on the rates, and would assist with obtaining the lowest financing costs for the construction bonds. If the city loses the political vote, it can immediately use the Proposition 218 process to come up with more acceptable rates, based on voter input.

    This point-counterpoint process is what has made Davis such a great small city to live in, and it gives all of us a personal stake in city governance.

    Thank you to all the hard-working volunteers and the local media who got the word out that the petitions were circulating.

    We are hoping that the City Council will put this on the next ballot, June 2014, and that we can finally get a definitive vote as to the fairness and political acceptability these challenging rates. Although the hour will be late, we hope that the public will turn out to support putting this initiative on the June 2014 ballot.

    Michael J. Harrington

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