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Bob Dunning: All voters deserve cost information

BobDunning2W

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From page A2 | December 06, 2012 | Leave Comment

In less than two months — just after Groundhog Day, in fact — we’ll all be receiving ballots in the mail asking us to vote up or down on the very expensive project to bring Sacramento River water to Davis taps.

Only we won’t know the actual cost to us, individually or collectively, of this very expensive project because that information will not appear anywhere on the ballot. For obvious reasons, the City Council — which chose the exact wording on the ballot — decided it was better if the general public was kept out of the loop on the actual financial facts and figures. So much for informed consent.

The city claims if it puts a firm dollar figure for the project on the ballot it will be locked permanently into that amount, but there’s nothing that would prevent the city from including an “estimated range” to give us an idea what we’re voting on.

Then again, when the proposed project is expected to hit $113 million, perhaps more, it may be wise to keep the unwashed masses in the dark.

Reads the ballot language: “Shall Ordinance No. 2399 be adopted, which grants permission to the city of Davis to proceed with the Davis Woodland Water Supply Project, to provide surface water as an additional supply of water, subject to the adoption of water rates in accordance with the California Constitution (Proposition 218)?”

What the city wants here is a blank check, just in case the project runs to, say, $125 million or $150 million or whatever the final figure may be.

The ballot language could have included an upper range “not to exceed” figure, but the potential for that figure to scare off “yes” voters apparently was more than the city could bear.

But, you say, certainly the rates each homeowner will have to pay will be on the ballot so we can all make an intelligent decision over how this project will affect the family budget. Again, for those same obvious reasons, not a chance.

To be sure, the city cannot seek approval of a water rate increase through traditional balloting. The only way the city can raise water rates is through a Proposition 218 process where each ratepayer is notified by mail of the proposed new rates and then has 45 days to file a formal written protest with the city. If a majority of ratepayers file such a protest, the rates cannot be instituted.

City leaders would have us believe the language of Prop. 218 prevents them from listing the proposed rates on the ballot, but 218 has no such prohibition.

The ballot easily could have been worded so that only the project itself is subject to a “yes” or “no” vote, but the language could have included the overall cost of the project and the projected new rates the project would entail.

The cost and rate information would be there simply to help the voter make an informed choice about the project. Given that the cost is estimated to be $113 million and rates are expected to as much as triple for the average user, that might be valuable information for voters to have.

If a majority of Davis voters cast “yes” ballots, the council would have a green light to proceed with the project. The proposed rates would then still be subject to the Prop. 218 process before they could be instituted.

But, the city will argue, the rate study still hasn’t been completed and the ballot language was due in the county clerk’s office some time ago. Talk about putting the cart before the horse, it seems elementary that you first know what the cost to individual ratepayers will be before you ask them to vote on a project.

And if the rate information isn’t available in time for a March 5 vote, then postpone the election until the rate information is available.

A couple of months delay won’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things. Especially when the grand scheme is slated to cost $113 million.

The city does plan to send out Prop. 218 notices — separate from the actual ballots — before the election, but the problem with that plan is that these notices will go only to ratepayers and not to the general public.

It’s estimated that 55 percent of those eligible to vote in this election are renters and they’ll receive nothing at all in the way of cost information from the city. And trust me, those renters might not be “ratepayers” in the legal sense of the word, but one way or another they’ll be paying for the increased cost of water as well.

So 45 percent of voters will get formal notification from the city before the election that their water rates are about to triple, but 55 percent of voters will receive nothing at all from the city. It’s like sending a voter information guide only to Democrats and not to Republicans.

The city will argue that formal Prop. 218 notices cannot legally be sent to renters, which is true, but there’s nothing in the language of 218 to prevent the city from notifying all voters that water rates will go up dramatically, both for homeowners and apartment building owners, if this project is approved.

Homeowners and renters can then do what they wish with the information, but they’ll all be on equal footing when they cast their ballots.

If this thing ever ends up in court, as it well might, I suspect a judge will find it outrageous that one group of voters received valuable cost information before voting and another group of voters didn’t.

There’s still time for the city to do the right thing here, but the clock is winding down and the alarm is about to sound.

— Reach Bob Dunning at bdunning@davisenterprise.net

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