Can we really afford higher water rates?

By John Munn

If you want to vote on whether water rates should be nearly tripled over the next five years, now is the time to sign the local initiative petition on water rates.

Last year, the Davis City Council voted to increase water rates over a five-year period, primarily to raise revenue for a surface water project. The true cost of this increase has been obscured in two ways.

First, the council changed the city services billing cycle from every other month to monthly. While doubling postage and other administrative costs, this cut by half the number that ratepayers see as the apparent cost of water and other city services.

Second, the council staged the new rates to increase over time, with the current water cost being similar to or, in some cases, less than the previous rates. This will be followed by annual rate increases for five years until city water costs nearly three times more than it does now.

Hide-the-pea measures may be politically clever, but will not help in the long run. There are already plans for water costs to go even higher in the future. While providing information at a hearing about the then-proposed rate increase, city staff presented a chart showing that water revenue will need to double again after five years to pay for the surface water project. This means that water costs will need to go up again and will cause Davis water rates to be four or five times more than they are today.

We have one, last chance to decide whether the Davis community can afford such a major increase in water rates, which would eventually take close to $40 million per year out of our economy. Petitions to qualify an initiative overturning the new water rates are now being circulated for signatures by registered voters in Davis. These petitions must be turned in by late January or early February.

This is permitted under Proposition 218, which allows voting on rate changes. Court decisions, however, have restricted use of an initiative to set rates. So the Davis water rates initiative has been limited to repealing the new rates.

Since its water rates decision, the City Council also has voted to increase sewer rates, is considering garbage pickup rate increases, has been informed that millions of dollars in road maintenance work is needed, and is now facing a multimillion-dollar deficit in the city’s general fund for which a tax increase is being considered.

Making the overall picture even worse, major water users — including Old Willowbank, Village Homes, El Macero and the city of Davis itself — have considered developing their own, separate systems for irrigation water because of the new, much higher water rates. If any of these areas substantially reduce their city water use, the loss in city water system volume would require even higher water rates for remaining users to pay off bonds and for other fixed costs.

Can we really pay for all of this? Sticking one’s head in the sand is not going to make these problems go away.

The most frequent question about the water rates initiative is whether we have already voted on this. The answer is no. Measure I went before Davis voters at a mail-only special election early last March and was passed by a narrow majority of the 40 percent of voters who returned ballots. This authorized the building of a surface water project “subject to the adoption of water rates.” Therefore, water rates were not presented to the voters as part of Measure I.

In addition, most voters did not receive Measure I voter guides until at least a week after the mail-only ballots arrived. During this time, more than 30 percent of all returned ballots were received from voters who did not see the concerns about future water rates included in arguments against Measure I.

Meanwhile, the message coming from better-financed proponents of Measure I was that the quantity and quality of Davis groundwater are inadequate for future needs. These and other claims by Measure I proponents have turned out to be either not true or, at best, not confirmed.

So many voters were both prevented from receiving relevant information and, to use a polite term, misinformed by proponents during the Measure I election. This is not likely to be repeated in an election about water rates.

To sign the Davis water rates initiative petition or to get copies for distribution, please send an email message to [email protected] or call 530-753-7529. Time is limited, so prompt attention is needed to bring water rates to the voters.

— John Munn is a Davis resident and a member of Yolo Rate Payers for Affordable Public Utility Services, which has sued the city of Davis over its current water rates.

Special to The Enterprise

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