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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Soaking the Ratepayers on Water Already

I was just reading Bob Dunning's most recent column in the Davis Enterprise. He writes about a man named "Glen" who is having trouble absorbing his new city utility bill. We have covered this issue before, but it bears another examination. What the city did with a simple change of methodology is unconscionable.

The Vanguard discussed this issue back in September, but the human cost here is extraordinary. What has happened is that the city has gone to water usage as a means by which to gauge sewer rates. If one proceeds carefully and cautiously, that is probably a decent approximation of sewer usage. Even then there are some problems that develop from such a methodology. For instance, it will over-estimate sewer usage for people with large gardens who use a lot of water to water their plants--water that does not then go into the sewer.

The real problem was insufficient city notification to the public as to what was going to happen, how it was going to happen, and what that would mean.

Let me be clear, I understand the city sent out notices to the public on this. Notices do not work. We get too many notices. Notices blend in with everything else the city and everyone else decides to dump into our mailbox.

What would have worked is for a year to have an additional line on a person's sewer bill which basically read: "your bill under 2008 methodology." It should then have instructed an individual who thinks that bill is too high to contact the city. That would have gotten people's attention and it would have avoided this particular problem.

However, the city did not do that and people during one of the worst economic times in memory are having to deal with huge increases to their water bills until such time as they can bring it down. Where is the city's responsibility here to bridging that gap? Who is stepping up to make sure the public is not getting crippled at a time when the economy is in the tank? The answer is no one.

But in a lot of ways, the situation is worse than that. People who read this blog have a fairly good idea that worse is coming down the pike. But the general public does not know what is in store for them. The city is on the verge of approving two massive new projects involving our water--a new wastewater treatment plant and a new water supply diversion system.

The cost of these two projects unless something dramatically changes is going to be half a billion dollars. And really, I think that's just the tip of the iceberg. I think the cost is really going to be higher than the current estimates.

People with the change in methodology have gotten just a taste of what is really coming towards them. I have said this before, people wondered how I could support a $120 per year increase for Measure W. Frankly that's about $10 a month and the money goes for education. When these changes come down you are likely looking at no less than that increase PER MONTH to your water bill and the proceeds go to pay for city and private engineers to construct these two massive public works projects.

If you were worried about your finances with Measure W, that's nothing and it's a good investment into the future of our community. This is simply frightening.

What concerns me most is the lack of consideration of alternatives. Every time that a certain councilmember has raised these questions, it seems she is cut off.

Here is what we have been told:

1. The outflow water does not meet current standards.

Assuming that is true, what is the impact of a high selenium content on the environment and is that impact really worth the costs of a new wastewater treatment plant and a new water supply project.

2. The only solution is to find a new water source

Are there possible alternatives? Part of my concern here is that the same people who are advising the city and are experts on water are those who would stand to profit from a new water supply project.

3. If we do not act now on Sacramento River water, we will lose our place in line

This line has continually moved the project forward for the past decade with very little actual decision-making. We have basically created trajectory with no policy. But this is actually the crucial question.

Does the Sacramento River Water reduce the pollutant problem or does it merely shift it? Will the river be a reliable supply of water during drought years? Will we even get river water during the dry season of drought years?

There have been suggestions that they only open the spigot when the river is over a certain level and that the time of year when we are most likely to get water would be during winter months. Is this really the solution to our problems? Or are we kind of deluding ourselves?

We are going to invest a lot of money into this system, is it really going to give us water and is it water that we can afford? In other words, is this really the change that we need or should we not go to the drawing board and figure out possibly if there is another way?

I do not know the answers to these. What I would like to do though is to talk to people who are not financially invested in our decision. I do not think that is really too much to ask.

Do people like "Glen" know this is even under consideration? How would they respond? Are we going to end up pricing people right out of this city with the high utility bills and increasing tax burden, not to mention the cost of housing and everything else.

I hear people complain all the time about the cost of housing and attribute it to lack of growth in the last ten years, which is not necessarily borne out by data, but those same people seem unmoved by the potential 800-pound gorilla sitting in the back of the room. We need leadership and innovation on this issue. I don't want to hear industry buzzwords about "value engineering" and "cost reduction." I want to see real tough decision-making and thinking outside of the box that the consultants have already placed us into.

---David M. Greenwald reporting