Tuesday’s meeting may have been one of the most contentious we have had since Mayor Joe Krovoza took over as mayor of Davis in early 2011. Certainly since Brett Lee and Lucas Frerichs joined the council two years ago.
The truth is that the stakes here appear to be very high but the path to avoid those stakes is very unclear. The reality is that Tuesday’s meeting represented two separate train wrecks coming to a head – but both are related and tied into the Measure P vote.
Many have pinned the blame on the rejection of the water rates through the passage of Measure P on CBFR. I have a somewhat different take on the results, which I believe are more complicated than simply a rejection of CBFR, which was an issue in play in 2013 when the voters approved Measure I.
If you look at the results in March 2013 and compare them to the results in June 2014, you realize something very interesting. In March 2013, No on Measure I received 6802 votes. In June of 2014, Yes on Measure P received 7058. In other words, nearly the same number of people voted for Measure P as voted against Measure I.
What changed drastically is the side supporting the water project fell from 8000 votes in March 2013 to just under 6800 in June 2014. Fewer people voted in the June primary as voted in a March 2013 special election.
Just as earlier we laid blame for the parcel tax polling numbers on the lack of campaigning by the Measure O campaign, we lay the same blame here. In March 2013, they hired a political consultant, hired Will Arnold as campaign manager, identified their likely voters and mounted a robust campaign. The result was that 1000 more people voted in the special election than voted in the primary election.
That is a point that just about everyone should keep in mind for a number of things, but for our purposes here, it illustrates the point that the reason the water rates went down is not necessarily CBFR – which Bob Dunning campaigned against for sixty days leading up to the Measure I election, but rather complacency on the part of the water supporters.
As the story continues, the blame of CBFR underlies two other factors that emerged on Tuesday. Matt Williams was walking precincts in the spring and recognized that Measure P was going to pass and identified the look-back as a critical factor. In addition, while CBFR created a much more equitable rate, he and Donna Lemongello found a way to make it even more equitable.
Staff Drags Their Feet, Intentionally Sabotaging Williams-Lemongello
They came forth with their modifications right before the election. At that point, the council was concerned about the rates and willing to look in alternate directions. However, city staff, in particular Herb Niederberger, deliberately disobeyed council direction and he dragged his feet on properly evaluating what has become known as Williams-Lemongello water rates.
As Donna Lemongello writes in today’s paper, “It is really unfortunate that what I essentially begged, on June 17 (or was it the 10th?), for the Council to have done, an analysis for the comparison of all the water rate structures side by side, will most likely never happen.”
She continues, “As I said that night, if we had that, and if the URAC had had that, the decision would have been made much easier. The decision could have then simply moved to differences of opinion on policy and how these structures fit into policy.”
“We were never allowed to combine all the information into a comparable, accurate and consistent format to simply make these numerical graphic comparisons. Instead what we got was a presentation by the consultant to council and to us citizens, of inconsistent, incorrect, misleading and therefore meaningless graphs, that cost money for the consultant to make,” she writes. “Anyone who thinks for just a moment realizes how senseless and frustrating that scenario really is.”
This led outgoing Mayor Joe Krovoza to unload on Herb Niederberger on Tuesday.
He said, “I would like to ask if staff has worked with Williams and Lemongello to understand the rate resiliency of their proposal.”
Herb Niederberger answered in the affirmative, “One of the reasons that it generates such a surplus is they have a different starting point.”
Mayor Krovoza responded, “That’s not my question.”
Mr. Niederberger stated, “Yes we understand the rate resiliency of the Williams-Lemongello.”
Mayor Krovoza stated again, “That wasn’t my question. My question was has staff worked with Williams and Lemongello to understand the rate resiliency and worked with them on the question?”
He questioned him harder, “You’ve worked with them?”
Mr. Niederberger answered that Matt Williams furnished them with the rate resiliency and presented it to the URAC.
“And you consider it not rate resilient,” the mayor continued?
“Again they have a different starting point,” Mr. Niederberger responded. “They put a conservation number in year one, whereas all the other conservation numbers were based over time.”
But Mayor Krovoza disagreed. “Everything I have heard, you have not worked with them to try to make it rate resilient. Everything I have heard is they have an idea, an idea I believe that matches our community’s values so much better and for weeks and weeks they’ve been stonewalled in being able to work with quality staff to figure out if they can make it workable.”
He argued that at this meeting they once again received the staff’s 60-40 presentation and were “in my mind not getting a good faith effort to see if this rate structure could work for us.”
“I am terribly disappointed, I think that this is decision making at almost its very very worst at this point in time,” he said. “I am not going to support this. We are moving forward toward a rate structure that is less conservation oriented than we have at this point in time.”
He would add that we are only at this point because staff has stonewalled for months and “it is absolutely equitably unfair and even unconscionable.” He added, “This a huge step backwards for this city.”
Brett Lee Pushes for 60-40
On Tuesday, Brett Lee seemingly reversed course and decided we needed to implement as vanilla a rate structure as possible.
“At this point, I would like to have a very super vanilla rate,” he said. The advantage, he said, is that Bartle Wells has been legally vetted. In the long view, he said, we can always do a new Prop. 218, “we can do something that is the vanilla rate and we can give the URAC the time and the resources.”
He said that Matt Williams and Donna Lemongello have been working on the rate structure, but he said he cannot in good conscience support it when he doesn’t believe it has been fully vetted.
He said, “We got it wrong last time.” He then added, “I believe we got it wrong but we were set up to get it wrong because we were making the decision with a deadline. It wasn’t really clear how this cute, elegant solution was going to be deliberated.”
Brett Lee’s view goes as follows.
First, he thinks that a 60-40 rate structure is tried and true, and would avoid not only a legal challenge but is less likely to be challenged by another initiative.
Second, he believes that if we have our rate structure in place, we will be eligible in the fall for state revolving loans.
Finally, he believes that while Williams-Lemongello might be a good rate structure – if it is vetted – it would be challenged legally, challenged with an initiative, and he believes it is inferior to the ultimate aim – a water budget.
From our perspective however, it seems that the conventional 60-40 rate structure is the worst of all world. When we look at cost per ccf, we most clearly see the problem with these rates.
The lowest user spends TWICE per CCF what the middle tier users at 11 CCF spend. And they spend THREE TIMES the amount that the highest end users use. They are effectively subsidizing the water usage of the top end users. As Matt Williams would state a few meetings ago, “That is not fair.”
The critical issue facing the council is the seeming tradeoff between social equity versus the need for revenue certainty and drought resilience.
Had Herb Niederberger allowed Matt Williams and Donna Lemongello to have access to Doug Dove of Bartle Wells and Financial Advisor Mark Northcross, we might have at least been able to see if there was a way forward.
Despite Councilmember Lee’s thinking here, it is not clear that a risk averse approach – going even temporarily in the direction of tried and true but inferior rates – ends this game any quicker. I continue to hear skepticism that the city will qualify for the state revolving fund, given that we have a private operator and our water is too good to qualify under the clean water act.
We do agree that the city needs to move forward, but it should move forward with the best possible rate. Assuming we will get a second bite at the apple is a recipe for more legal challenges and potential derailment.
—David M. Greenwald reporting