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Are Davis’ water rates fair or a social engineering fiasco? It’s your choice

By From page A15 | February 10, 2013

By Bill Tournay

It is finally time for Davisites to rethink what the proposed water rate schedule represents. It is an established fact that most water districts charge users for the volume of water they use at the cost of providing it. It’s not rocket science — just common-sense fairness.

The rate structure for the surface water project does not meet this test. Embedded in the out-years is a questionable bit of social engineering, which posits that one month’s use fixes your user rates for a year. The implication is that an individual user is not capable of making his own economic decisions by either 1) shutting off the tap in high usage periods, 2) making landscaping changes or 3) willingly reaching for his checkbook.

Instead, the water authorities will compel you to pay higher-than-cost prices for a year’s water. At another level, it is an insult to Davisites that they cannot manage their own economic affairs, but instead must rely on a water purveyor to compel you to act the way it would prefer. Whatever happened to the concept of a fully informed, ratepaying citizen acting responsibly in his own self-interest?

A solution (per the request of op-ed writers Frank Loge and Matt Williams) is to adopt level billing to spread your costs — a well-established practice in PG&Es customer services. This would take the bite out of the high season usages by paying for it all year long.

Another puzzling suggestion in the article was the reference to “building two systems.” The suggestion is an interesting one. Will the new system be built for July loads or foolishly for December? If the former, then there is no question that it would be possible and prudent to let independent, free-thinking Davisites determine their own fate.

We have had environmental protection and bad-tasting water used as props for the surface water project. Now (in the op-ed), the shibboleth of Davis running dry is a new wrinkle — obviously a feeble exercise in fear-mongering. If the current wells are serving up water to Davis, how could the addition of thousands of acre-feet of surface water create a water scarcity?

The upcoming lawsuit, asserting violation of the principles of Proposition 218, is very serious and not to be taken lightly. A public agency cannot take a free ride by using a resource that it doesn’t account for. It is fiscally irresponsible. Using “free water” is appealing by taking it off-budget, but of at least questionable legality. The city of Davis general fund is not impacted by what is not accounted for. In addition, it is unfair to taxpayers and a violation of generally accepted accounting practices. The city has to give its citizens fair and accurate accounting of its actions.

Besides fairness, it is a settled proportionality principle in Prop. 218 that the public cannot be charged more than the cost of a service. Further, under certain circumstances, ratepayers cannot be charged in advance for services they haven’t received.

The city should be wary of its financial strategy for the surface water project before proceeding. It would be a huge contribution to transparency in government if there were a full public disclosure of the revenue stream that will finance the entire project. Gross cost allocations — like Woodland will pay amount A and Davis amount B — do not represent a revenue stream by source, nor does the apparent endless increase of user fees for water service.

What citizens need to know before they vote can be provided in a fairly simple spreadsheet. How much are user fees paying and for what part of the project? How much is the general fund paying and for what part of the project? How much are grants paying and for what part of the project? These should be aggregate, real numbers. Using typical household costs is a smokescreen when voters are responsible for financial approval at the project level. Answers to these questions would contribute to the comfort level of voters.

The California Legislative Analyst Office states: “Proposition 218 shifts most of this power over taxation from locally elected governing boards to residents and property owners. In order to fulfill this considerable responsibility, local residents and property owners will need greater information on local government finances and responsibilities.”

Right now, a no vote would seem to be a responsible one.

— Bill Tournay is a Davis resident.

Special to The Enterprise

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