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Saturday, September 13, 2008

City of Davis Getting Water-Jacked on Multiple Angles

Is Council Finally Having Serious Concerns About the Cost of the Wastewater Project?

At some point it would probably benefit everyone to go back through the records and look at the increases in the estimated cost of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade. I believe that since early last year when I first took note of the wastewater project the estimated cost of the project has risen from around $150 million to over $200 million.

Finally, the city council is taking a serious look at ways to reduce the costs. The real question is why has it taken so long? But at least now the council is looking into the costs.

It also seems that the city is finally taking the advice of Councilmember Sue Greenwald and consulting with local water experts to see if there are other ways to make this happen.

Of course, Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor had to dissent on that vote, claiming he was uncomfortable with the process that involved naming individuals who could assist the city. He preferred a more general call for help from interested individuals. That is not surprising given his strong ties with consultants West Yest and Associates who have been contracted to work on this project.

Councilmember Sue Greenwald has always maintained that she has contact with water experts who could assist in this program. However, she has never been willing to name them and to be proactive in recruiting them. This has even led some of her supporters to become frustrated.

However with that issue aside, she has been the strongest advocate for looking at different ways to do both this project and the water supply project which figures to be at least as expensive.

The city has officially until October 1, 2015 to comply with stricter water discharge standards.

Councilmember Stephen Souza suggested that a delay in the project would be worth it if it ended up leading to cost savings for the city. On the other hand, Public Works Director Bob Weir was more reluctant to do so. At one point suggesting that this project was the only certain way to meet new tougher requirements.

My favorite part of this however were the remarks by Councilmember Don Saylor who contacted The Enterprise after the fact.
Councilman Don Saylor told The Enterprise today that his intention with having Emlen continue to work with the project designers while also researching other options was to meet the state's compliance timeline while also making sure the project is the best fit.

'There's a high likelihood that the majority of the project design will remain intact,' he said. 'And so we don't want to lose ground on the progress. ...

'However, it's important that we are extremely confident that we do as much value engineering, cost reduction as is warranted' and carefully consider alternatives.
Value engineering? Is that some nuanced political doublespeak?

If left up to Mr. Saylor, the city would be spending exactly what the estimate says. The process has been altered by the continued outspokeness of some of his colleagues like Councilmember Greenwald who has from day one asserted that this project is entirely too expensive and we should be looking for alternative ways. Mr. Saylor has rejected and failed to consider those warnings until now, and even now, he voted against the project.

He wants to sound reasonable and diplomatic here, but he has taken absolutely no leadership on this issue. Now he plays catch up with some well-rehearsed double speak about "value engineering" and "cost reduction" all the while giving the same tired line about not wanting to "lose ground on the progress."

What progress is that? Forcing through an expensive construction project that will likely double people's sewer rates?

This discussion on Tuesday followed an interesting discussion on existing sewer rates that have been recalibrated to a formula that was poorly explained to the public. Now a good number of people in the public have seen their water rates skyrocket in the last few months using the new system because unbeknownst to them their rates are being calculated using an entirely different methodology.

A member of the public came before public comment and wanted to know why his sewer rates had jumped so much. It turns out there was an item on the consent agenda that related to this.

The methodology has changed from a flat rate to an actual consumption of water during the winter months. There were a little over one thousand people that had excessive rates of charges based on the new methodology.

This happened because a large number of people were not aware that come August 1, their bill would be based on their average consumption rather than the previous flat rate.

I know on this blog the issue has been asked by a few people at least who were surprised by the sharp increase of their water bills. Obviously 1000 people is a small number compared to the total population of the city, but it seems once again that the city somehow failed to convey to people exactly how and when the water rate methodology would change.

Leak detection and water usage in the wintertime are now critical for people to pay attention to.

Here is my concern--listening to the questions posed to Bob Weir by Stephen Souza, Mr. Weir seemed very defensive. The issue is not water usage here, but sewer usage. And yet the metering that they are doing is for water usage. So as Mr. Souza pointed out at one point, there are people who garden year round, that means they are using water during the winter for their gardening. Well if they are using water for their gardening, then the water is not going into the sewers.

Mr. Weir's response?
"Well, we will continue to refine what we are looking at. This is meant to get us obviously a stop gap measure. Then as we look at the 09-10 rates, perfect this, what is the best we can do in terms of what is the wintertime usage of water..."
Did Bob Weir say anything here? Actually I think he said a lot. He's basically admitting that the system is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. It is certainly not measuring sewer usage but rather water usage. Moreover, he is basically admitting that they put a system into place that is costing people a lot of money and they did this as a stopgap measure that has flaws.

Again, the money that they are playing with is not their own money, but that of the public. And yet Bob Weir hardly seemed concerned.

Bob Weir also mentioned that while there was a lot of publicity about these changes, however, "no matter what you do, some people aren't going to get that message." You can miss the committee meetings, miss the Prop. 218 notice, miss the "Utility Connection," or "see it and not have it register."

Are these means of communication sufficient? I think when you are dealing with something of this magnitude, we could be talking about hundreds of dollars per month that many people just cannot afford, the city has to do more. If 10 percent of the public reads the "Utility Connection" I would be stunned.

I have to belabor this point here because I do not think the city does an adequate job of notification. There was a suggestion that they should have done a concurrent sample price scale for a period of time. What that would mean, is that there would be a line in your current sewer bill that said: "your current bill is... " And then the next line would demonstrate their monthly bill using the new methodology. People may still miss that, but for a lot of people that would have been a wake up call.

But the problem is that they think of these things after the fact. The city always seems to be a step behind in their methods of communication and they also seem to make costly changes first and ask questions and resolve it later. Again, the people who suffer from this approach are the ratepayers.

In my opinion, there is a time bomb being lit in this city. For the amount of complaining on this blog on a relatively modest $120 per year increase to keep programs and teachers at Davis Joint Unified for school children, the rate increases from water alone will dwarf that. Just from this methodology change a person could pay more than ten-fold extra per year if they were caught off guard and were one of the unfortunate souls that did not see the city's attempts at communication.

The city council has dragged its feet on these issues and finally is waking up to the fact that the water treatment plant will cost more than they anticipated--which was already way too high for a lot of the residents in Davis.

I am really glad that the city is not taking seriously the prospect of "value engineering" and "cost reduction." To me it seems lip service for being a day late and hundreds of millions of dollars too short.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting