Bob Dunning

Bob Dunning: City tries to shoot the messenger

By From page A2 | February 17, 2013

Now they’re getting personal.

In a classic case of shooting the messenger, City Manager Steve Pinkerton sent a circle-the-wagons memo to all five City Council members and various city staffers involved with the water project, attempting to discredit the Above-Pictured Columnist. Worse yet, he did it on the public dime.

All this because I had the audacity to ask each of our council members “Can you please explain to me how (in 2018) charging $7.80 per ccf in summer and $1.32 in winter meets Prop. 218’s requirement of ‘proportionality?’ ”

A fair question, since “proportionality” seems to be at the heart of this debate. Now, since we have three lawyers on the council, I figured one of them might be able to tell me in his or her own words exactly why this thing passes muster with Prop. 218. No such luck. Non-lawyer Brett Lee did take a stab at my question, telling me he was “puzzled” by my numbers. Do the math, councilman, and you will no longer be puzzled.

Apparently, all five council members sent my request to Pinkerton, who wrote back to them “Based on a review of my emails from today, it looks like our local columnist individually asked each of you the same question.”

Indeed I did. And I expected at least one of our elected representatives, who are, after all, the ones urging us to approve this water project, to explain the rate structure to me in terms of compliance with 218.

Interesting that Pinkerton didn’t have the common courtesy to send me a copy of the memo, given that I was the one requesting the information in the first place. No, this was damage control, pure and simple. For their eyes only.

Pinkerton, lovingly referring to me as “the columnist” throughout his memo, suggested that I am confused about how the consumption-based fixed rate actually works.

Ah yes, the columnist is confused. The long hours of chasing all those kids have finally addled his brain. Maybe a bit of dementia has set in. Too bad they still let him write that column, given his deteriorating condition.

Truth be told, from the lack of accurate response to my question, it appears I may be the only one who understands how the CBFR works.

Very quickly, there are three components. I’ll use the year 2018 for consistency. The only fixed charge, which the city refers to as a “distribution charge” is $13.67 a month. The other two components, the “variable” charge and the “supply” charge, are determined strictly by how much water you use in a given time period.

The variable charge, $1.32 per ccf, is based on the amount of water you use in a given month and varies from month to month. The supply charge is based solely on the amount of water you use from May 1 through Oct. 31 (54 cents per every ccf used) and is added to your bill each and every month for an entire year. Both vary precisely with the amount of water you use.

I know that and Pinkerton knows that. Then again, maybe he doesn’t.

Incredibly, Pinkerton ends his memo to council members and staff by claiming the supply charge “is not a variable charge.” He then tries to solidify the claim by saying “The variable charge is the only charge that is based on actual consumption of water.”

Either the city manager is telling a little fib here or he, too, doesn’t understand how the CBFR works. And the fact he’s telling this story on the public dime makes me want to demand a refund.

I’ll say this as clearly and directly as I can. The supply charge is based strictly and solely on your actual consumption of water from May through October. Use a lot and you’ll pay a lot, spread over every month of the coming year. Use a little and you’ll pay a little. Use nothing during the summer months and your supply charge will be a big, fat zero for an entire year. Again, it is based strictly and solely on the amount of water you use.

The net effect of this is that using a ccf of water in summer will end up costing you $7.80 over the course of a year, while using a ccf of water in winter will cost you only $1.32. So, if you use 120 ccf in summer, it’ll cost you an additional $777.60 on your annual water bill. (120 times 54 cents equals $64.80 a month, times 12 months equals $777.60.)

For crying out loud, it’s called the consumption-based fixed rate. Doesn’t that tell you it’s based on how much water you use?

The city claims that summertime use of water is more expensive than wintertime use. So, if it really costs $7.80 per ccf to deliver water in July, then charge us $7.80 per ccf on our monthly bills in July. Without a doubt, that would lead to some serious conservation. So much so, in fact, that revenues would fall dramatically short of what’s necessary to pay for this $113 million project.

The dirty little secret here is that the city would like you to conserve a little bit, but not a whole bunch. Conserve too much and we’ll have to raise your rates again.

If I get my hands on another city memo, you’ll be the first to know. Unless that darn confusion sets in again.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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