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Council votes to look at reducing water bills

By
From page A1 | April 23, 2014 |

The Davis City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to have the city look at reducing future water bills by an estimated 8 percent without changing the underlying structure of the water rates.

The vote means city staff, consultants and the newly formed Utility Rate Advisory Committee will review a series of rate changes made possible by savings realized by proceeding with the water project and efficiencies of rearranging the way the city pays debts associated with the project.

This means that some early rate increases through the city’s new consumption-based rate will not be as high, as much as 8 percent less than anticipated. Measurements for a variable charge in the rate that changes based on water usage from May through October will begin this year and be seen on bills starting in January.

But the issue presented Tuesday to the City Council was two-pronged.  The council also heard a dire warning about Measure P, the initiative to throw out the city’s water rates. Herb Niederberger, the city’s general manager of utilities, told the council in no uncertain terms that Measure P would cause the city to default on its obligations to the Sacramento River water diversion project. Davis’ share of the joint project with Woodland is $107 million.

That default could cost tens of millions of dollars, according to Niederberger’s report to council and items presented at the meeting. Refurbishing 12 of the city’s wells to deal with new chromium regulations is part of that. The city also would need to rehabilitate its wastewater plant to suit new regulations at a sum that likely would be in the millions, but was not specified Tuesday.

Niederberger also said the current structure of the consumption-based water rates anticipated that major irrigation users would find ways to opt out of the system.

Measure P opponents have said that the city, school district, El Macero and other neighborhood associations with access to well water would use that instead of pay higher rates. Niederberger did not explain his statement and council did not discuss it, even after Nancy Price, a major Measure P proponent, expressed skepticism.

“It’s really not clear to me, as was stated, how the rates figure that into that system,” Price said during an opportunity for the public to make comments. She also said she did not believe Measure P would “destroy” the water project.

Matt Williams, one of the architects of the consumption-based rates, warned the council not to change the underlying rates.

“If you make a change,” he said “…You’ll have an argument coming from the other side.”

Williams referred to the city’s continued experience of having to defend the water rates and the project — first from a vote on Measure I, then in a lawsuit and now an initiative on the rates — to the movie “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray must keep reliving the same day over and over again.

“You do not need to go through this again,” Williams said.

City Councilman Dan Wolk picked up on the rate change issue.

“If Measure P passes, there’s going to be a lot of navel-gazing as to what the voters meant,” he said. “I don’t want this to alter the rate prior to (the vote on) Measure P.”

City Attorney Harriet Steiner assured Wolk that was not going to be the case.

“There is no recommendation to do that,” she said.

Other council members wanted the rate committee to have a broader discussion about the make-up of the rates. Councilman Brett Lee suggested going back to a previous rate called Bartle-Wells, which had a simpler charge structure and wouldn’t confuse people as much as the consumption-based rates have.

Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson seemed to agree with that idea.

“For me to support the motion, it would have to be about more than the rates going down 8 percent,” she said.

However, Mayor Joe Krovoza then briefly defended the consumption-based rate model, saying it is necessary to encourage good water use in the community. The council then voted unanimously to go ahead with Niederberger’s recommendation.

— Reach Dave Ryan at dryan@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews

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