Commentary: Wrong Message Sent on Water Rates

water-rate-iconI listened to the water discussion on Tuesday night fully agreeing that the proposed revisions to CBFR will make the water rates both more fair and perhaps easier to understand for the citizenry. However, I found myself surprisingly strongly moved by the arguments made by Michael Harrington and John Munn about process.

One could look at the timing issue with some suspicion – after all, why would the council want to entertain rate changes a week before the election? If I did not know better, I would be screaming foul at this apparent bait and switch.

But I do know better. I know that the rate change impetus came not from the council but from the well-meaning work of citizens Donna Lemongello and Matt Williams, whose motivation was to make the system better. I also know that Brett Lee and Lucas Frerichs attempted to agendize this sooner but were thwarted.

Still, many citizens are not privy to this intimate knowledge of chains of events and they see something nefarious at work. Many will understandably see this as a last ditch effort to save the surface water project from impending doom.

This is embodied by the last slide in Matt Williams’ presentation, that addresses our liability risk, implying a yes vote on Measure P would cause the city to default on the project. Matt Williams, in his comments on the Vanguard, implied that information gathered from his canvassing efforts resulted in a belief in widespread disaffection with the water rates and a belief that Measure P could succeed and result in a calamity for the city.

It is therefore not invalid to suspect that Mr. Williams was motivated by electoral considerations.

All of these factors play into the trust issue that has become paramount in this election. There is a trust issue – or a lack of trust issue – at play here. It was embodied in the comments by Michael Harrington on the Vanguard on Sunday and it was embodied in the comments by candidate John Munn on Tuesday.

“These rates are not equitable and put the burden of paying for the surface water project onto single family homes,” he stated. “Now, we are supposed to trust the City Council to change its mind and do the right thing? After putting this town through years of struggle, you can’t just say ‘never mind.’”

Instead, he argued, we should trust the voters and that “the only way we can be sure of getting new water rates is to vote ‘YES’ on Measure P.”

While the council didn’t and couldn’t actually change the rates on Tuesday night, they sent a strong message for the URAC to look at the new alternative at their next meeting.

At this late date before the election, with Measure P on the ballot, this process seemed problematic to me. The fundamental rules are shifting just a week out from an election in which probably most people have not voted. We’re going to greatly distort the voter signal in this election and that is going to make it more difficult going forward.

Previously we could argue that Measure P would be a clear signal – a Yes vote means that you want the rates to change, or you oppose the project all together. A No vote means to keep going.

Now Measure P almost devolves into a trust issue. A Yes vote on Measure P means you do not trust the council to fix the rates. A No vote means you do. Except that timing matters, because the meaning of Measure P has now shifted.

While Brett Lee was eloquent and passionate on Tuesday, he contributed to the muddling of the signal.

For Brett Lee, the bottom line is whatever happens with Measure P next week, “I want to change the rates.” He added that this is “the mechanics of the rate structure,” that he wants to see changed. “They’re complicated, people are understandably confused.” He added, “There is no need to have the complexity of the six month summertime look back.”

He also pushed the issue forward, stating, “I’m not really willing to sit on my hands for the next four weeks waiting until we have everything teed up. I know that I want to change the rate structure.” He said if you take the Proponents of Measure P at their word, they want a fair equitable rate structure, and “if we can deliver that tonight, then they should be happy.”

While in one sense you can admire the clear signal from Brett Lee, on the other hand, he seems to forget that we have an election and that must be respected. We need to at least find out what the voters want here, and now we probably can’t.

The disappointing part of all of this is that we have lost sight over a clear shortcoming in this process. In December 2012, we had this discussion over CBFR. While there were key shortcomings, the clearest advantage is that it took a system where meter size determined the fix rates and where the low end users were paying nearly 50% more per gallon than high end users and greatly equalized it.

During both the Measure I and Measure P campaigns the council largely sat back and allowed the critics like Bob Dunning and the Measure P folks to define CBFR.

Instead of going to battle and showing the citizens how much more equitable CBFR made the water rates, even as they would rise due to the water project, they allowed Bob Dunning to poke holes in it. CBFR became the poster child for unfair rates, instead of a system that brought much greater equity.

The summer water issue could be fully justified, understanding the notion of peak demand. But it turns out that there was a way to make the system even more equitable than it was already.

Why didn’t they do it sooner? Matt Williams addressed that issue on Tuesday when he stated,“The thing that caused us not to do this until now is that we were afraid that it would cause us to lose the protection of the resilient revenue that’s been fixed.”

“The white space that you see under the black bar is free water that people are getting,” he said. “Those are the highest users and they are paying for less water than what they are getting.”


Who is paying for the high end user’s water? “The people that were most responsible, who were most efficient about using the water are paying 6% of the revenue right now and only using 2% of the water. That is not equitable!”

There is no doubt that the system that they have now devised is more equitable and better, but that does not mean the previous system was bad.

Still, it is disconcerting to read the comments made by URAC Chair Elaine Roberts Musser who stated,

Ms. Musser, of course, never supported CBFR, but the answer to her question is that we did the math and it produces a more equitable situation.

However, we would have preferred a better process here. At this last moment, it would have been better to have had the discussion about water rates after the election and after we got a clear signal from the voters.

Now we really have no way of knowing exactly what a Yes on Measure P or a No on Measure P really means, and unfortunately that will not put to rest this debate any time soon.

—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. Barack Palin

    I agree with Harrington, I’m still voting Yes on P. Why would this promise of fixing things change anyone’s vote? They had a long time to correct this and there’s no reason it couldn’t have been done BEFORE the election. Why should anyone trust them now?

  2. Tia Will

    “Now we really have no way of knowing exactly what a Yes on Measure P or a No on Measure P really means, and unfortunately that will not put to rest this debate any time soon.”

    It was my impression that the stated goals of the “yes on P” campaign was to achieve, in their eyes, a more equitable rate structure, not to further delay or block the water project. It is also the stated goal of those who opposed measure P to obtain what they saw as a more equitable rate structure than what we have had to date.

    It is Brett Lee’s and the council’s stated goal to create the most equitable rates structure. So now, if the everyone is in agreement that the current proposal is better than the previous, and it has been agreed to evaluate this through the URAC process and reconsideration by the city council.

    Let’s not forget that what measure P was supposed to do is to rescind the proposed rates, presumably to create a better system. Now that the council has agreed to revisit the rates, to my mind, measure P has been rendered irrelevant. The rates are being revisited regardless of the vote. While this is certainly messy in terms of timing,

    I fail to see why everyone isn’t celebrating. Unless of course that was not the real goal of the Yes on P campaign who would have preferred to delay and or block longer still.

    1. darelldd

      >>Let’s not forget that what measure P was supposed to do is to rescind the proposed rates, presumably to create a better system. Now that the council has agreed to revisit the rates, to my mind, measure P has been rendered irrelevant. The rates are being revisited regardless of the vote.<<

      Well said, Tia. Too many people think that Yes on P means that we'll suddenly get some mystical "perfect" rate that even Dunning can understand. What measure P says is that we will repeal what we've got. It says nothing about what we'll use in the future. So yeah… now that the rates are being actively revisited, P is meaningless. Basically, we are now effectively operating in a "yes on P" situation.

      Too many "yes on P" folks seem to associate "every gallon costing the same" as being "fair." How many Bob Dunnings does this town really need?

      1. Barack Palin

        “Basically, we are now effectively operating in a “yes on P” situation.”

        Okay, so then what does it hurt to vote yes on P and assuring that there will be new rates?

        What if the council or URAC decide that they want to stay with the old rates then what options do the yes on P people have if they decide to not vote for Measure P?

        1. Matt Williams

          I personally believe that the answer to that question is that if the outcome is the same with respect to the fact that rates will change regardless, then the only difference between a Yes vote on P and a No vote on P is that the Yes vote carries with it a multi-multi-million dollar liability risk and a No vote has no such risk. Is it fiscally responsible to risk a $25 million to $100 million fiscal liability risk for no identifiable purpose.

          Given that you are a big fan of avoiding unnecessary fiscal liability risk, I think your choice should be clear … but only if you believe Council is committed to changing the rates in both the Yes and No scenarios. Tuesday night should have made it crystal clear that they are.

        2. darelldd

          > Okay, so then what does it hurt to vote yes on P and assuring that there will be new rates? What if the council or URAC decide that they want to stay with the old rates then what options do the yes on P people have if they decide to not vote for Measure P?<

          Sounds like they should vote for P to make sure we change things to something… unspecified, but most definitely *different*.

          1. darelldd

            Man. Unreguard that last post of mine. It posted much different than how I had it showing here! Do me a favor and just read Matt’s reply. Better than mine even before it got messed up.

  3. South of Davis

    Tia wrote:

    > So now, if the everyone is in agreement that the current
    > proposal is better than the previous,

    I bet there are less than 10 people in Davis that can answer the question Tia uses 3,000 gallons in a month while David’s family uses 9,000 gallons in a month. How much will they pay under the current plan and how much will they pay under the new plan.

    I’m kind of a geek that tends to understand these things, but whole water rate game has my head spinning (and makes me think that someone is trying to hide something in the more complex than it needs to be rate structure).

    1. South of Davis

      P.S. I’m hoping that Matt is one of the 10 that can answer my question and I would love it if Matt (or someone else)could answer my question above (showing the math they used to get the answers…

      1. Matt Williams

        SoD, you have phrased your question with a trick when you use gallons as opposed to ccf. But with the knowledge that 748 gallons = 1 ccf the slide below from our Tuesday presentation lets you and anyone else do the calculations for the proposed plan, where Tia uses 4 ccf in a month while David’s family uses 12 ccf in a month. 4 ccf = 2992 gallons 12 ccf = 8976 gallons.
        Final Slides
        Final Slides
        … and the information you have given isn’t enough to do the calculations for the currently adopted plan.

        P.S. Assume $8.25 per month as the Distribution Charge for a 3/4-inch meter.

        1. South of Davis

          Matt wrote:

          > SoD, you have phrased your question with a trick
          > when you use gallons as opposed to ccf.

          It was not a “trick”, I was just trying to put it in terms that regular people can understand (shower heads and toilets tell people how many “gallons” per minute and per flush they use, not a % of ccf)…

          1. Matt Williams

            Fair enough.

            Actually I would love to see the billing move to 1000 gallon units, but the meters we have measure water in ccf, so until meters are replaced ccf are the units we will continue to use.

      2. Matt Williams

        The math for Tia is:

        $ 8.25 plus
        $10.56 plus
        $ 2.00 equals

        $10.46 = $2.64 times 4
        $ 2.00 = $0.50 times 4

        The math for David is:

        $ 8.25 plus
        $31.68 plus
        $ 6.00 equals

        $31.68 = $2.64 times 12
        $ 6.00 = $0.50 times 12

        1. dlemongello

          I’d like to also point out that though David used 3 times as much water his bill is 2.2 times as much. This is this close because of a low fixed distribution charge that we propose. Most rate structures have much higher fixed charges. If this bill were calculated by our current system that is set to end in Dec. the bills would be $19.68 plus $1.53 per ccf . So Tia’s bill=$25.80 and David’s =$38.04 so David’s bill would be only 1.5 times as much for 3 times as much water. Which one do you think is more fair?

        2. South of Davis

          Matt wrote:

          > The math for Tia is:
          > $ 8.25 plus

          I get the base charge for a 3/4-inch meter.

          > $10.56 plus

          I get this as $2.64 per ccf

          > $ 2.00

          I don’t get where the variable use fee comes from and why Bob Dunning is mad that his bill will be higher “next year” than his neighbor if he stays home and his neighbor spend the summer out of town…

          1. David Greenwald

            It’s not even clear to me that spending the summer out of town leads to signficant savings. Are they going to let their lawn and other plants die? That’s the bulk of their water usage.

          2. Matt Williams

            There are three components to the bill per the following slide. The Variable Use Fee is the third component. In the tiers scenario the monthly usage is multiplied by the $0.50 per ccf rate to get the $2.00 Variable Use Fee.

            Final Slides
            Final Slides
            With that said, I’m not sure where and when Bob Dunning is expressing the anger you refer to. Can you point me in the right direction on that? The reason I ask is that I think that complaint is one of the ones that this proposal completely eliminates by going to the 12-month-weighted Supply Charge that the supporters of measure P and the Davis Enterprise have advocated for.

        3. Tia Will

          Wow ! I win ! Look how much less I have to pay than David ! That’s clearly fair to me.
          Oh, wait…. how come David gets to use 3 x as much water and only has to pay 2.2 x as much ? Now that’s nor fair !
          But on the other hand, David still has children at home and I don’t….so maybe it is fair.
          But on the other hand, maybe David should have not had four children and only had two as I did, then he wouldn’t need as much water. That’s not fair !

          But then again, maybe David’s children aren’t his biologic children and he is doing a good act by raising them….may be it is fair after all !

          Or maybe we should all grow up and realize that whatever rate is adopted, someone is going to be saying….”but its not fair”! Can we all not just appreciate that we here in California have gotten away with extremely low water rates for a very long time and now we are going to have to pay more for what we use. We should help those who will be genuinely hurt by the increased costs and the rest of us should just demonstrate some maturity, accept the water project that the majority backed, accept the best possible solution that the City Council determines,
          as Mr. Harrington said correctly is their responsibility, and stopping whining about what is and isn’t ” fair”.

          1. Barack Palin

            “whining about what is and isn’t fair”

            Is this coming from the same person who said it wasn’t fair that people got free plastic bags as she said that her groceries cost more because of that?

            ..that it also wasn’t fair that people who ride bikes or walk shouldn’t have to subsidize other’s free parking?

            So could that have been considered as whining?

  4. Scheney

    Michael Harrington and John Munn were irresponsible in complaining about timing. There is a proposals to change the rates so that the very things they are complaining about would be addressed. If this was the true basis for the Measure, they should support the changes. Instead they complain about the timing as “late” but want them to wait longer.

    It is clear that Harrington wants Measure P to pass, so he can then attack Measure I. Harrington has made it very clear in his diatribe last week that he believes that this water project is driven by unknown developers who need water for their evil plans for explosive expansion. This is what is driving Harrington, and I believe that he could care less about fair water rates that would support the water project. Don’t be swayed by his testimony, especially when you know that this is not about Measure P, but about correcting the flaws indentified.

    1. Matt Williams

      In his second paragraph Scheney describes one of the key reasons Donna and I made this proposal … fiscal liability risk. The following are the last two slides of our Tuesday presentation where we highlight all the positives we believe our proposal brings to the table. The last bullet in the first slide is highlighted in red for a reason. The last slide excerpts the language from the JPA contract that spells out that multi-multi-million dollar liability in black and white.
      Final Slides
      Final Slides

  5. Alan Miller

    Again, I repeat, once more. Summer rates are not equitable if the people who lived there are not still the people paying. I don’t even understand how it can be legal to be forced to pay for someone else’s water. Beyond that, the rate structure fixed vs. variable is just policy . . . but when there is a lookback, it is just wrong.

  6. dlemongello

    At this point the council has excluded, by unanimously passed motion, any rates that include the lookback to some previous time. The city now has a way of dealing with that issue, it’s by not creating it.

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