Vanguard Analysis: Why Measure P May Pass

Equity Chart - SFR New CBFR-12 vs CBFR-6Matt Williams explained his rationale for offering up a compromise, “based on my extensive canvassing as part of the City Council election I have had the opportunity to talk with thousands of Davis residents, and for many of them Measure P is not about killing the project, it is about fairness, and they are not at all convinced that the rates as they currently exist are fair.”

Implicit in that statement is concern about whether Measure P will pass.

I completely believe the motivation behind the efforts of Donna Lemongello and Matt Williams to fix CBFR, to make what was a more equitable rate structure than the Bartle Wells alternative even more fair.

However, I think Michael Harrington’s analysis from a political standpoint is surprisingly strong.

If the council gets to hear the alternative tomorrow, and it is less than clear that will happen, there is no guarantee prior to the election that the compromise CBFR rates will go before the URAC (Utility Rate Advisory Committee), get sent to the council, get to a Prop 218, and get approved. That may well be the intent of the drafters of the compromise, but they lack the ability to make it so.

As Michael Harrington points out, “The Davis Enterprise editorials have lately concluded the CBFR rates need a drastic overhaul.” Mr. Harrington writes, “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.”

Mr. Harrington is using the compromise against the opponents of Measure P, arguing, “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.”

He points out, “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.”

It is a great political point that was really handed to Mr. Harrington at the 11th hour. Now whether they can really take advantage of it now is up in the air. But essentially Mr. Harrington is going to argue that now the drafter of CBFR believes that the rates are flawed, but you can’t trust the city council to fix them, and therefore you have the ability to force the city to fix them by voting Yes on Measure P.

When CBFR came out, the Vanguard quickly recognized the obvious. Under a traditional rate structure, fixed costs are based on meter sizes, and the crudeness of that model means that low-end water users pay far more per gallon than high-end users.

CBFR started to fix that by making the rates based on actual usage during peak times to approximate the total strain on the system each individual user created.

But this model was new and apparently confusing for the public.

The city was able to narrowly get the water project approved by a 54-46 vote. While the margin was victory was fairly comfortable, sometimes numbers are misleading and the number of vocal critics was relatively high.

It is easy to point the finger at a Michael Harrington, argue that he and his colleagues are simply misguided, greedy, and wish to kill the water project. What that ignored, however, is the seam of public discontent.

The root of the problem goes far beyond the confusion and perceived inequity of the CBFR system. The city should have been hammering home the fact that the Bartle Wells system would have meant that low-end users pay nearly 50% more per gallon than their high-end counterparts.

Moreover, the city took only a half measure to deal with the impact of rate hikes. The low income assistance plan was too little and too limited to be of much help. A resident like me can neither afford the rate hikes nor have access to the current assistance plan. The council really does not seem to care about this fact.

The bottom line is that these concerns about affordability in Davis have been captured by Measure P and also by John Munn. As we noted yesterday, John Munn is surging and has a good chance of finishing in the top 2. He benefits from being the only supporter of Measure P and opponent of the water project.

There is a very real wave of discontent in the electorate and, while the council in some ways improved upon things over the last four years, in the last six months that has fallen off the page.

With two councilmembers running for Assembly and one running for reelection, and the city manager having left, what has been accomplished in 2014? What is the big policy achievement?

In 2013 there were many major issues that were taken off the table. In 2014, I can’t name a single major policy achievement of the council. Their biggest achievement was the midnight approval of the sales tax that was written so poorly it had to be re-written at the next meeting to make sure everyone understood what they were voting on.

The council learned in June 2013 that it was facing huge deficits again, raised the idea of seeking revenue but did not revisit it until December, then belatedly sought out citizen input in January before approving the tax plan at the last possible moment.

We wonder why people might be skeptical that the council plans to revisit the rates if Measure P goes down.

Unfortunately, Measure P comes with some backside concerns. A Yes on Measure P vote might mean an instant lawsuit by Michael Harrington based on the language in Measure I, arguing that without effective rates, Measure I is null and void.

Moreover, the time it takes to get new rates approved, if Measure P removes them, might lead to the cascade of impacts staff laid out back in April. Did staff overplay its hand with that report? Probably, and that leads to distrust.

The bottom line here is it will be interesting to see how the public responds if the council hears the rates compromise. Will the majority trust the word of basically a lame duck council and oppose Measure P, believing the city has the means to fix the rates without removing them and exposing the city to potential fiscal perils, or will they decide that council cannot be trusted and vote yes, believing that it will force council to do what they have been reluctant to do so far?

Meanwhile, the low income residents might be wondering when the council will take their concerns about the rate hike impacts more seriously.

—David M. Greenwald reporrting

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. Tia Will

    “But essentially Mr. Harrington is going to argue that now the drafter of CBFR believes that the rates are flawed, you can’t trust the city council to fix them, and therefore you have the ability to force the city to fix them by voting Yes on Measure P.”

    Mr. Harrington has built his case on “forcing” the city to change this, or that, or another thing about the project since its inception. It the public cannot see the goal of blocking the project regardless of the cost that will have for the city then they have not been paying attention to Mr. Harrington.

    “The city should have been hammering home the fact that the Bartle Wells system would have meant that low end users pay nearly 50% more per gallon than their high end counterparts.”

    It would seem to me that this would have been a good thing for the media in our town to have been “hammering
    home.” If there is as much distrust of the government as you say, what makes you think that further attempts at education even if completely factual and compelling would have been successful ? In this situation where you have a dedicated minority group who is attempting to sabotage a project, I think it might be beneficial for the media to focus on that pros and cons of the project itself instead of focusing on the “politics” of the issue.

    “Unfortunately Measure P comes with some backside concerns. A Yes on Measure P vote might mean an instant lawsuit by Michael Harrington based on the language in Measure I, arguing that without effective rates, Measure I is null and void.”

    Might ? Might ? Have you ever seen Mr. Harrington pass on an obstructionist law suit.? And yet, this point about
    “backside concerns” ( aka millions of dollars at stake if Davis were to back out of this project) is buried near the bottom of your article which basically makes Mr. Harrington’s case for him on a purely political grounds. Your article also seems to be buying hook, line, and sinker into Mr. Harrington and company’s clearly fallacious contention that they are “looking out for the economically disadvantaged”. How well do you suppose that the economically disadvantaged are going to fare if the city does incur the massive price tag associated with backing out of this project as is Mr. Harrington’s goal ?

  2. Don Shor

    essentially Mr. Harrington is going to argue that now the drafter of CBFR believes that the rates are flawed,

    And he is correct in this argument, evidently.

    If CBFR is defensible, as I believe it is, the authors of the plan wouldn’t be promising changes to make it more ‘fair’.

    The decision to put forth a ‘compromise’ rate plan in the days before the election undercuts the opposition to Measure P. It appears entirely politically motivated. If there are issues with the CBFR as passed, the council established a commission to review those rates and make recommendations after appropriate, public deliberations.

    At this point, when asked about Measure P, I just tell people to vote for it or not as they please. I say this even though I signed the ballot argument against it. New rates won’t be any more or less ‘fair’ (whatever that means), and they may be higher or lower for some individuals. But that’s not really relevant, since it appears that CBFR will not prevail regardless.

    I oppose Measure P, but in any event, the council is going to change the rates, it seems. And they’ll have to do a rush job of it in either case. If Measure P passes, they’ll have to pass new rates immediately in order to keep the funding going.

    So this process will waste the council’s time, when it could be working on other things. Yet another distraction and agenda-clogging issue. And another Prop 218 process, and probably another lawsuit. The whole thing is going to cost the city money either way. But proposing new rates in the days before the election was foolish and probably increases the likelihood of Measure P passing.

    1. David Greenwald

      “If CBFR is defensible, as I believe it is, the authors of the plan wouldn’t be promising changes to make it more ‘fair’.”

      Why can’t it be that CBFR is an improvement over BW, but still had some flaws which this redesign has helped to close?

          1. Matt Williams

            Not sure I understand. Two citizens bring forth a proposal that is responsive to the expressed concerns of the voters … how is that a horrible political signal. Louis Sullivan was quick to say “Form follows Function” Donna and I were simply pursuing a functionally superior function. Allowing politics to trump a wise outcome turns Sullivan on his head and advocates for “Function follows Form.”

        1. Matt Williams

          Michael, no disrespect meant, but you clearly aren’t walking precincts for Robb. If you were, you would be talking to voters instead of talking to yourself in an echo chamber.

      1. dlemongello

        The key word here is RATE!! The “compromise” is in how it would be implemented. It generates the same necessary revenue based on the same historic usage from 2011 but without a “lookback” into a previous year’s May-Oct. usage. The rate itself is the same but based on 12 months not 6. If revenue falls short after a year at this rate, it will need to be increased; if there is a surplus, the rate could be lowered and the surplus could be used in a variety of constructive ways.

  3. Tia Will

    I am with you on this David.


    I think it is entirely possible for the author of a proposal to realize that there might have been a “better” way of doing things and to be willing to make changes based on subsequently considered options. I believe that is what has happened here. Many different points of view of have been expressed about the CBFR and Matt has had more time and opportunity to consider how it could be improved. I see it as quite the opposite of a political move, but rather a willingness to examine one’s own ideas and work with others to see if there is a better solution than what had been proposed.

  4. Matt Williams

    Don and David, you are using negative language when you use the word “flaws.” “Opportunities to be even better” is a more apt description.

    However, the really meaningful statement by Michael yesterday had nothing to do with the rates. He explicitly states “you can’t trust the city council to fix them” Not only does he crystalize the whole Measure P argument with those words, he also speaks out of both sides of his mouth when he says them.

    The Measure P supporters have repeated over and over and over again in their campaign that it is not their responsibility to propose a solution to the rates problem they believe exists. They have consistently said “It is up to the Council to fix the rates!” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that those two bolded statements are contradictory.

    My question to Michael and all the Measure P supporters has always been, “Are you really trying to solve a water rates problem, or are you really trying to create an even bigger water policy problem?”

  5. Tia Will


    The answer to your question, in my opinion is “neither.” There is one single unified goal here. That is to block the water project. This has always been Mr. Harriington’s goal. He has said so on a number of occasions indicating on other threads on the Vanguard that he considers it “unnecessary” and a “boondoggle”. All of his actions throughout have been to block this project. He does not see this as a bigger water policy problem. He sees it as a signature accomplishment for which he is using a no holds barred approach.

    I will make an exception with regard to John Munn who I believe to be both honest and sincere in his statement that it is not his personal goal to block the project. However, on this point, even if it is not your intent to block a project, if you know that to be the outcome of your action, does it make any difference whether that is your
    intent ? The outcome will be the same.

    1. DT Businessman

      Tia, you are essentially insinuating that Munn is honest, sincere and stupid. I don’t think he’s stupid. He damn well knows that he is aligned with people who’s sole purpose is to kill the water project. If Munn’s intent was merely to work on designing the best possible rates to pay for the water project, that’s what he’d be doing. Instead, he’s working his ass off to scuttle the project.

      -Michael Bisch

      1. DT Businessman

        Make no mistake. A successful Measure P will result in 1 of 2 outcomes:

        1) A more expensive water project with even higher rates to pay for it.

        2) Together with steps yet to be taken by the water project proponents, a scuttled water project that will still result in higher rates. Keep in mind, with or without the water project, the city needs to meet regulatory waste water standards. And with or without the water project we still need to spend $40M – $50M in deferred upgrades to our well system (these charges are embedded in the water project).

        This notion that we can somehow wind the clock back on our water rates is ridiculous.

        -Michael Bisch

  6. David Greenwald

    From Jim Leonard:

    David, The theft of Measure P lawn signs comes as no surprise, however the large amount of missing lawns does surprise me. Also, I live in an apartment with a veranda. To me, the veranda is a very private space, similar to the inside of the apartment. So, I was shocked when Sunday morning I discovered my Yes on P and John Munn signs to be missing. Since I am the lead person distributing Yes on Measure P signs and my neighbor has the same type of signs located on his veranda, I suspect it wasn’t just my signs that were targeted but ME as well since I am the lead person delivering Yes on Measure P signs. Naturally, I filed a police report and now have an incidence number. Lawn sign theft seems petty and inconsequential. However, when people display lawn signs, they are participating in our democracy. When signs are stolen, the underlying message is that only power counts–the same message that is more clearly delivered in authoritarian regimes. Please write an editorial telling the No on Measure P people to STOP IT. You can interview me if you want and ask whether we steal lawn signs or not–we don’t and would NEVER do that! Please write an article concerning what is and is not appropriate in elections.

  7. Polly Ticks

    Matt and.or David, I now understand the rate scheme, thanks to Donna’s post. Let’s say I use C ccf of water, and my distribution fee is D (based on my meter size; I don’t remember the numbers). If C is under 20, my cost is $D + ($0.50 + $2.46) x C = $D + $2.96 x C, and if it is over 20, my cost is $D + ($0.50 + $2.46) x 20 + ($1.90 + $2.46) x (C – 20) = $D + $2.96 x 20 + $4.36 x (C – 20) = $D – $28.00 + $4.36 x C (using some basic algebra). In other words, this is a tiered system, with two tiers, one for usage with ccf less than 20 and the second with ccf greater than 20.

    Now, here is my fundamental problem. Throughout, the proponents of CBFR have argued that CBFR is more fair than a tiered system. See for example the Dec. 13, 2012, Vanguard column entitled “Commentary: Bartle Wells Proposal Hurts the Low End User”, by David Greenwald; in the April 28, 2014 column entitled “Analysis: Does Measure P Matter?”, again by David Greenwald, he quotes the No on Measure P folks as saying “Traditional water rates severely penalize all those groups [seniors, low-income residents, those in apartments or with small lots]” (to be fair, he is not clear whether Matt, Bob Schneider, Jerry Adler or Stephen McCord, or some combination, is claiming this).

    But now the proponents of CBFR are saying that Donna’s formula is a “compromise CBFR rate” and a fix to CBFR; see the May 26, 2014 Vanguard column “Vanguard Analysis: Why Measure P May Pass” by David Greenwald. Assuming you subscribe to the notion that this is a fix to the CBFR and not a reintroduction of a tiered system, can you explain to me why this is so?

    This is very confusing and I am hoping one of you, or someone else, can make clear to me why a tiered system is unfair, but a tiered CBFR like Donna proposes is less unfair.

  8. Barack Palin

    I’m starting to see the effects of the new summer useage penalties in my Wildhorse neighborhood. Three of my close local neighbors, within 4 houses down the street on both sides, have quit watering their lawns and they now are a beautiful dead looking brown. Another neighbor has already gone to bark and a few plants. It’s all so lovely.

    1. Dave Hart

      Yes, Barack, we have every duty not only to live in a way that is inconsistent with the world in which we live but to expect our neighbors to follow suit. How lovely.

    2. David Greenwald

      Back in the early 1990s, there was a seven year drought in San Luis Obispo, they had to completely change their landscaping. One way or another, given the state that we live in this is inevitable. If rising water prices don’t do it, drought will. If not now, next time. People at some point have to accept that their world is changing.

      1. Don Shor

        I have some customers who have stopped watering their lawns because they intend to relandscape later this summer or this fall. Killing the lawn with glyphosate would be faster, but they don’t want to do that, and the layering/smothering techniques are somewhat cumbersome. So they’re just letting the lawn die. New landscapes without lawns are going to be the norm in Davis, and they can be very attractive.

        1. dlemongello

          We are going to have to adjust our aesthetic, it’s long overdue. Plants and trees grew here before we arrived and those are the ones (and others that are drought tolerant) that are most suitable as we move away from massive amounts of supplemental watering. It also looks great, just different, and much of it can be watered with gray water to conserve a bit more. The trees will not die unless we completely overreact, the landscaping will change. Embrace it.

          1. Don Shor

            Most people wouldn’t be happy with a landscape comprised of the trees and grasses that were native here five hundred years ago. But there are lots of lovely options for low-water landscapes, including fruit-producing trees and lovely flowering things as well as lawn substitutes.

  9. dlemongello

    The first thing I have to clarify is that this proposal is most recently a collaboration between me and Matt, but it is based on a huge amount of work that had been done by him and others for us to have the foundation upon which to work. I did not know anything about tiers and my main contribution was to remove the “lookback” to the previous May-Oct. water and instead base bills on current use.
    Secondly, tiers are used in quite a different way when combined with a CBFR structure, because the tiers are part of a much smaller proportion of the bill (the variable use charge which is $0.50/ccf unless you reach tier 2) )and the consumption based supply fee is the much higher proportion of the bill, as you can see, $2.64/ccf. The up front fixed fee is also much (58%) lower than in the B/W tiered structure so there is a much lower fixed fee to amortize your water use across. Also the B/W Tier 1 fee is $1.53. To summarize, B/W is less strongly correlated to consumption than 6 month CBFR (the rate we have adopted at the moment) or 12 month CBFR with 2 tiers (the rate we are proposing).

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