Our View

Right idea, wrong time

By From page A10 | February 09, 2014

The issue: Public power would be good for Davis, but we have too much on our plate

Revisiting a long-held community goal, the Davis City Council is looking at the feasibility of a public utility to provide electricity to residents. Last attempted with 2006’s Measures H and I, which would have allowed Yolo County to join Sacramento’s publicly owned SMUD, backers see opportunities for long-term savings, local accountability and greener production methods in public power.

THE MAIN obstacle is the usual one: PG&E, our current provider, is in no mood to give up customers, and not inclined to sell the infrastructure a public provider would have to buy. In 2006, the utility spent heavily to prevent an exodus and, while the measures passed in Davis, it was able to convince Sacramento voters to reject the union. Davis was back at Square One.

At this point, the council has spent $400,000 analyzing the possibilities, with $600,000 more earmarked from a wastewater fund. A report by economist Charles Cicchetti unsurprisingly found that a public utility could save $5 million to $9 million a year after paying $20 million for the physical infrastructure. Just as unsurprising, PG&E disputes the first figure and promises the second will be higher. Ultimately, state regulators or the courts would have to decide what all those power lines and transformers are worth.

City leaders are reluctant to discuss details, as they are in the very early stage of analysis. “All we’re doing now is methodically exploring the issue,” Mayor Joe Krovoza said. But if the past is anything to go by, a bruising fight lies ahead.

THE ENTERPRISE backed the measures in 2006, and the reasoning behind them is still sound. The investment is well worth it if it results in greater local control, lower prices and a reinvestment of the fees Davis ratepayers pay back into Davis.

But conditions have changed in seven years. Retiree pension and medical benefits costs are out of control. A recession has forced cuts to services and a drastically reduced city workforce. We have a massively expensive water project coming up, one whose rates are sure to be challenged at the ballot box, but will be hefty no matter what final form they take. Voters also will be asked to approve a sales tax in June to help close the budget deficit, as well as a parcel tax to fund roads and parks. If we ask taxpayers for too much, we may end up with nothing.

Put simply, now is not the time to take on another huge project. We have too much on our plate as it is. Perhaps if the long-hoped “innovation park” ever gets going and we start attracting high-tech businesses to town, the tax base will improve to the point where this is feasible. Or perhaps our economy will rebound enough to allow us the fiscal luxury of moving forward.

But for now, public power seems like a step too far.

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