The result was almost inevitable as the council asked the URAC (Utility Rate Advisory Committee) to do something that they were not created to do, were not equipped to do, and should not have been asked to do – decide which rate options were the best.
The URAC was formed as the successor to WAC, but really with the idea of providing advice and oversight to make sure that the water rates were producing the revenue needed to fund the water project. They were not formed to do policy analysis or rate analysis.
It was a long and painful process watching a group of people first have to familiarize themselves with all of the issues that the WAC members learned over a year’s time, try to digest the information, and then attempt to get seven people with at least three and perhaps more ways of thinking to come up with a consensus rate recommendation.
That proved too much.
From the start, this just did not seem like a good idea. And to be fair, the URAC members made a go of it – they put forth an honest effort – and ultimately the downfall was not lack of knowledge, but lack of consensus.
But still, why put them in that position to begin with?
Part of the problem is that the councilmembers themselves are not necessarily up to speed on the water rate issues. Brett Lee has made the comment that he really does not need this kind of advice and he is correct. Brett Lee went to just about all (if not all) of the WAC meetings, and, while he had work obligations on Thursday, he has been to the URAC meetings as well.
So, naturally, he not only feels up to speed, but probably more qualified to weigh in on the water rates than others. Lucas Frerichs also attended a number of the WAC meetings. But what of the other councilmembers? The WAC was at least televised and videoed, so councilmembers with busy lives could return to those videos, but not so with the URAC.
Everyone has busy lives, so I understand not being able to make all of the meetings, but punting the decision to a volunteer citizen body seems like looking for political cover rather than making smart policy decisions. And, yes, there are members who have experience and expertise, but this body, again, was not formed for these purposes.
That leads me to a critical point – do we really need to rush this process through? The council was prepared to look at the rates regardless of Measure P’s outcome, but, by the passage of Measure P, the city’s water rates will revert to the 2010 water rates which do not provide the revenue needed to move forward with the process.
Michael Harrington can be bombastic, he can be inflammatory, he rubs people the wrong way, and he is certainly obstructing and may probably still be attempting to kill the water project. However, he is not necessarily wrong when he accuses the city of crying wolf at predictions of the sky falling.
Go back to the Fall 2011 referendum drive and Stephen Souza was launching a counter-signature gathering process where the flier stated, “Think before you sign! Forcing a vote on the clean water project is a delay which will cost rate payers more money.”
At the bottom it read: “Failing to act now could result in a loss of our water rights.” It continued: “The state water right is conditioned on the active use of the water. Delaying could jeopardize that state right.”
But, as we know, the referendum qualified, the council pulled back, implemented WAC, and the city put a better conceived project on the ballot that the voters supported.
However, Mr. Harrington was not satisfied with the fact that the water rates themselves were not on the ballot, so we got Measure P. The city warned of dire consequences and liability if Measure P passed. Those claims ended the day after the election.
Herb Niederberger told the URAC two days after the election that, as long as the rates are in place by October 1, the city can still get low interest rates.
Mr. Harrington would respond, “From my experiences with other public works programs I refuse to automatically accept the sky is falling.”
And Mr. Harrington has a point – each step along the way we have been warned that the train is leaving the station, there will be dire consequences, and the sky will fall on the project if we do not proceed and there will be dire consequences if the sky does fall on the project.
Now here’s the problem – I don’t know what to believe anymore coming out of the lips of the city and, in particular, Herb Niederberger. The claims that the sky is falling are starting to sound like the little boy that cried wolf.
The problem with the wolf crying analogy is that the lesson is so often misconstrued as an anti-lying lesson – do not lie (or in this case embellish) or you will no longer be believed. That analogy certainly should serve as an object lesson for the city staffers not to make fantastical proclamations, because when the real crisis hits, the citizenry will no longer be responding.
However, there is a secondary lesson that citizens like Michael Harrington ought to adhere to and that is that, while it is true that the city embellished, that does not mean the next time they won’t be right. After all, what killed the sheep was not merely the lie but complacence on the part of the villagers. And if the citizens of Davis become complacent, they may find themselves paying much higher rates.
It is essentially a game of Russian Roulette – just because you avoid the catastrophic end result your first three rounds does not guarantee safety the fourth round.
Just because Mr. Harrington’s game initially resulted in lower water rates does not mean that subsequent rounds will do the same.
At this point the council has to proceed even in the face of another potential lawsuit and threats to put the rates on the ballot.
We have an unfortunate situation where Herb Niederberger seems to have disobeyed council direction that he find a way to create an adequate record, and has gone against Johannes Troost’s wishes that the meetings be officially recorded.
Mr. Niederberger’s explanation on Thursday was that he spoke to the city attorney and she said that he was not legally bound to do so. However, legally bound is not the issue – the council last week told him to do that and he has failed to respect their wishes.
That is unfortunate in the wake of a non-decision. Fortunately, so far two members have published their accounts of their rationale.
We have Greg Clumpner who supported various forms of the 60-40 conventional rate structure and Richard McCann who supported a Summer Tiered rate. We also have various communications from Donna Lemongello and Matt Williams.
That is not the ideal situation, but we will have to make do.
The critical issue that divides the URAC is, frankly, the critical issue that will divide the council and possibly the community – the seeming tradeoff between social equity versus the need for revenue certainty and drought resilience. If this meeting was any reflection, these issues will not easily be resolved.
In the end, the URAC was unable to bridge this gap, despite efforts by Frank Loge to craft a motion that would have the council attempt to implement a rate that has an 87 variable charge and a 13 percent fixed charge, finding a way to create the cash reserve that Mark Northcross stated on Tuesday that council would need in order to get approval from bonding agencies.
However, Mr. Loge attempted to hedge the bets by having bonding agencies evaluate the plan in advance. Rate consultant Doug Dove echoed much of what Mr. Northcross stated on Tuesday – that the rates could work, but they would require a cash reserve and may result in higher interest rate charges.
Sandwiched around Frank Loge’s motion were two motions that were similar to one another, one from Elaine Roberts Musser and one from Greg Clumpner. Both Ms. Musser and Mr. Clumpner were of similar minds for the need of a conventional 40% Fixed and 60% Variable rate structure, believing that the difference between 60-40 and 87-13 was not sufficient money to make a huge difference, but the need for revenue certainty was critical.
Ms. Musser pushed Option 3, a conventional with uniform tiers, and Option 1, a conventional with tiers, in her case breaking at 18 (rather than 10) ccf. Mr. Clumpner pushed 3, 1, 2 in that order. All of these were conventional, and the only difference was tiering at 10, 18, or uniform tiers.
This is the issue that the council seems divided on and the fate of 87-13 probably rests with the ability to create enough of a cash reserve so as to satisfy the bond experts that the rates are drought-proof.
The council will now have to weigh these issues without additional guidance from the URAC, but, in a way, that is how it should be – relying on the elected officials who are accountable to the public rather than the appointed URAC which is not.
—David M. Greenwald reporting