Without a majority protest of the ratepayers to stop it, the City Council unanimously approved five years of water rate increases Tuesday that will triple the average water bill in Davis by 2018.
The city needs the sharp uptick in revenue to begin raising funds to pay for the $113 million Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency surface water project that will supply Davis and Woodland with new drinking water from the Sacramento River.
The first rate hike will take effect on May 1, raising the average residential water bill by a maximum of about 5 percent. On Jan. 1, 2014, rates then will be bumped up by about an additional 20 percent.
By 2018, the average single-family home consuming 15 hundred cubic feet of water per month will pay about $98.27, assuming an average peak month consumption rate of 20 ccf, or almost a 300 percent increase from the current average single-family residential water bill.
The water project was approved by 54.1 percent of those who voted in the Measure I election on March 5. However, as stated in the ballot language, the council could not proceed with the project until the necessary rate increases were adopted.
Despite 46 percent of voters saying no to the project, and despite more than 1,800 “unverified” protests against the rates, council members were solid in their decision to adopt the rate increases Tuesday.
“I respect the views of folks who did not agree with Measure I and who protested the rates tonight, but I am grateful that Measure I did pass; I think it’s very important for our community,” Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk said.
“In support of Measure I — the clear will of the community — in support of good policy and in support of the fact that it was a binding measure, I think this council is obligated to pass these rates.”
More than half of the city’s approximately 16,500 ratepayers would have had to file protests to stop the council from adopting the increases.
However, falling short of that mark didn’t stop a handful of community members who had been vocally opposed to the project and the rates throughout the Measure I campaign from speaking Tuesday to reiterate their concerns, at least one last time.
“I’m here to ask you to reconsider the proposed water project and the water rates change,” said John Munn, supporter of No on Measure I and the former president of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association. “Many residents of Davis cannot afford to have their water rates tripled. And for each issue we have looked at specifically, it’s just not necessary.”
The rates are being challenged in a lawsuit against the city filed by Yolo Ratepayers For Affordable Public Utility Services. The suit alleges that the rates are not legal under Proposition 218.
That Prop. 218 process also came under fire during Tuesday’s public hearing. Some members of the community felt that the protest process is flawed and should be addressed for future rate increase procedures.
“I hope that the next time the city pays attention to real democratic local process, and regardless of your position on issues, that you take this very seriously to set an example and to model how democracy should operate in this city,” said Davis resident Nancy Price, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
In the end, the project has now been approved by a majority of the voters and the council has adopted the first set of rate increases necessary to pay for that project, sending the city and its residents on a trajectory toward a new drinking water supply.
Mayor Joe Krovoza, one of the project’s most ardent supporters, was expansive in his comments Tuesday: “I’ve said it privately and I want to say it publicly, that the opponents of this project have helped us create a much, much better system for the city of Davis,” he said. “They should be proud, and this mayor and, I think, this council as a whole is very thankful.”
More work to do
The council also agreed that its work on the project is far from finished.
With several residents speaking during public comment specifically about the project costs, Councilman Brett Lee said that while the city has a majority endorsement from the public, the council should take seriously the concerns of those 7,000 or so people who voted no.
“The costs are quite substantial,” Lee said. “I think we need to do everything possible to try to make this project as affordable as possible. Some may think that the decision is already made and there aren’t any avenues for making this more affordable but I think as we look at the financing component and as we look at some other decisions that we’re going to make … that we keep going back to what we can afford and what we can’t.”
The council apparently still will have the help of its Water Advisory Committee to make such decisions, as, in addition to the rates, it also unanimously turned down the idea Tuesday of disbanding the group entirely.
Herb Niederberger, the city’s general manager of development, utilities and operations, offered to the council an option to end the water committee’s service and to package its remaining work into the scope of a new committee that would be formed to tackle all utility and corresponding rate issues in the future.
But council members appeared uncomfortable with the idea of cutting short the work of the group that had played such an instrumental role in fine-tuning the project’s details and the rates leading up to the Measure I vote.
However, several council members said some WAC members have approached them to ask about stepping down from their posts.
This produced a lengthy discussion on the dais about who would be able to appoint new members, considering new Council members Lucas Frerichs and Lee had not yet been elected when the committee was created and therefore have no representatives on the group.
The council eventually agreed it would decide how to appoint new members only if any of those in the original group do, in fact, decide to resign.
According to WAC chair Elaine Roberts Musser, the committee still has to address fluoridation, the bidding process for the project work and oversight of the preliminary stages of the consumption-based fixed rate model before it goes live in 2015.
The council also approved a recommendation to hold a public ceremony to recognize WAC members for their work.
— Reach Tom Sakash at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash