Special Commentary: How Did I Get Involved in this Mess?

City Clerk Zoe Mirabile formally receives the 2243 petitions from Pam Nieberg and Ernie Head.
City Clerk Zoe Mirabile formally receives the 2243 petitions from Pam Nieberg and Ernie Head in January

by Michael Harrington

How did I get involved in this mess?

In August 2011, members of the local business community alerted me to their perception that the large water rate increases that were coming from the City made no sense, and in fact columns did not add up, percentages were wildly off, and the increase was far larger than city staff were reporting in their summary, “feel good” infomercials.

On September 6, 2011, the City Council adopted those crazy rates.  We were stunned that our elected officials could possibly do something like that.  It took about a week to move into action, and in three weeks we collected the voter signatures that qualified the referendum and forced the City Council to repeal them or put them on a ballot for citywide vote.

The City chose to repeal the rates in December 2011, and go back to the older rates pending additional study.  The Water Advisory Committee was created at the same time.

The City Council eventually put the water project itself on the March 2013 ballot, and it passed.  The rates were not on the ballot.

Our Committee felt very determined that the new rates were terribly unfair, and that those rates should be on the citywide ballot.  I and a committee drafted the initiative to repeal the new rates, and we collected the required signatures that forced the City Council to put the 5-year rate package on the June 3, 2014 ballot.  The initiative is known as Measure P, and asks Davis registered voters to repeal the new rates.

A simple majority YES vote on Measure P will require that the City Council go back to the rates that were put back into effect when the City Council repealed in December 2011 the horribly misleading rate structure that our Fall 2011 referendum challenged.

The five year rate package that is the subject of Measure P and on the June 3 ballot has 3 remaining years of the infamous CBFR experimental rate structure.  That structure as adopted by the City Council was NEVER recommended by the WAC, and in fact somewhat twisted the WAC-recommended structure.

Among other serious problems, the CBFR rate structure has a 6-month summer average feature that socks it to any summer user of water, especially single family homes with lots of trees, green yards and gardens.

It also charges rate payers for water bills incurred many months earlier!  The City apologists have tried to set up an administrative system that would allow someone to move into a home and reset their starting place on the water bills, but many will not know to do this, and just opt to pay the bill that is outrageously high, for no apparent reason.  I liken this to the government breaking our legs and violating our rights, and saying it’s OK since there is free medical care available at Sutter ER.  Simply outrageous.

I attended most of the WAC and City Council water rate meetings, and I complained loudly that the new CBFR would unnecessarily penalize the summer irrigators, and would charge people for water usage of a household of students from a year ago, or even longer.  Bob Dunning has described this as sitting down at a Davis restaurant for a meal, we order something reasonable and less expensive due to our slim budget, and the waiter brings us a huge check based on the last customer’s splurging;  what a brilliant column!

Please don’t take my word for any of these problems with this untested brand new rate system never before used anywhere in North America:  the Davis Enterprise editorials have lately concluded the CBFR rates need a drastic overhaul, including fixing of the major flaws described above.  Most of the City Council members have quietly reached the same conclusion.  And possibly even most telling, the principle author and “Daddy” of the CBFR in the last two weeks has decided the baby’s DNA-level flaws simply have to be fixed, and he has generated a report and asked the City Council to agendize it for this Tuesday, May 27.  That report was recently posted on the Davis Vanguard if you are too shocked to believe my comments.

Now the No on P cadre are out telling people that yes, the rates are a mess, but don’t vote YES on P to force the City to repeal this package and adopt new, more fair, more understandable rates.  The latest story is to vote NO on P, and trust the City to go ahead and voluntarily fix them.   Agree with the No on P committee?  Then I have some great seafront property to sell you about twenty miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Every single time any improvements have been done to the project or these rates, the improvements occurred only after our Committee forced them legally or politically to improve the rates and the project.  None of this has been voluntary by the City.

Our Committee has been recognized by city staff as saving over $135 million in rate payer money, and forcing a significant downsize of the plant that was until the Fall 2011 referendum sized to produce water to Davis with a huge population explosion.

(All of you readers know that the water plant was originally conceptualized by then-City Council Member Lois Wolk who realized she needed the huge new plant for the border-busting 1988 City General Plan’s massive population increase?)

Want to be sure these experimental, confusing, and home owner-punishing rates are fixed?  Vote YES on P to repeal them, and send the City Council back to develop a set that is fair, intuitive, and progressively looking forward.

One final issue:  chicken little.  Every single time our Committee has challenged the rates, the drafters of the rates and the City Council have gone somewhat looney about chicken little:  the sky will fall; an asteroid will hit Central Park, or some such nonsense.  They have used fear very successfully  to push through various city policies and programs (the fall 2011 rate referendum comes to mind:  we saved the ratepayers enormous sums of money, and the world did not end).

Now, the City and the Davis Enterprise are pushing the idea that if Measure P passes, it will result in huge fines and additional project costs due to delays.  Sound familiar?  Heard that back in Fall 2011?   Heard that when we demanded that the City take time to put the water project itself on a citywide ballot for a voter check-in?  Heard that back in 2000 when Measure J was placed on the ballot and our town would be ruined if it passed?  Same today.  These scare tactics are false and just that.

Do not listen to them.

Please attend this Tuesday’s City Council meeting for the item on the rates discussion.

And most importantly, please vote YES on P next Tuesday, June 3, to ensure that these weird and unfair rates are repealed, and the City Council has to come up with a more fair set of water rates.

Michael J. Harrington, Esq. is a Aviation Litigation Attorney, Longtime Davis downtown resident,  Co-Chair, Fall 2011 Referendum Challenging Water Rates, Drafter, Measure P Initiative, Member, Measure P Steering Committee, and  Member, Davis City Council 2000-04.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Matt Williams

    What is missing from Michael’s assessment is any form of a solution to the problems he believes exist. The language of Measure P says it is about fixing the rates. Most of Michael’s article above says that it is about the rates. But until the League of Womens Voters forum, Yes on P provided no information about how they would solve the problem. They were waging a Pillsbury Dough Boy, Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Man campaign.

    That changed when Yes On P said clearly at the LWV forum that a 12-month Supply Charge in the rates “would be fair.” The focus of the dialogue changed to solving the problem, not just pointing out the problem.

    Michael in his article above confirms that Yes on Measure P position when he says, “I attended most of the WAC and City Council water rate meetings, and I complained loudly that the new CBFR would unnecessarily penalize the summer irrigators, and would charge people for water usage of a household of students from a year ago, or even longer.

    Donna Lemongello was particularly incensed by the problem of charging one group of tenants (students) for the use of a prior group of tenants, and she came up with a solution that she thought would work. Her focus was on solving the problem she saw, and she sought me out to see if her solution would work.

    The result of her efforts is a modification of the existing rates that is simple, understandable, and provides Davis with the very solution that Yes On Measure P said would be “fair” … a 12-month Supply Charge … and no billings for prior periods … “pay as you go” is what Bob Dunning calls that. Each month you will receive your water bill. It will have three parts and you will pay the total of the three parts. That is both simple and understandable. The following describes what each bill would look like:

    Calculation of monthly Bill without tiers:

    Distribution Charge by meter size … plus

    $2.64 per ccf Supply Charge … plus

    $0.86 per ccf Variable Charge = Total Water Bill

    One aspect of “fairness” is that there should be some form of Conservation Message given that water is a scarce and precious resource. One way to accomplish that is to establish a second tier within the Variable Use Fee that incents conservation. With such a conservation incentive, the bill you receive each month will still be simple and understandable, and the following describes what it would look like:

    Calculation of monthly Bill with sample tiers:

    Distribution Charge by meter size … plus

    $2.64 per ccf Supply Charge … plus

    $0.50 per ccf for water less than 21 ccf … plus

    $1.90 per ccf for water greater than 20 ccf = Total Water Bill

    NOTE: You won’t fall into the second tier unless you use much more than the state standard of 2.25 ccf per person per month.

  2. dlemongello

    We are going to fix this thing whether P passes or not, but P gave us the opportunity to be listened to and to do so. I hope everyone who can will come hear our solution on Tuesday May 27th.

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