Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bob Dunning: The court speaks, and the ballot box awaits

From page A2 | January 23, 2014 | Leave Comment

AND NOW WE KNOW WHY IT TOOK SO LONG … in a well-reasoned and intricately detailed decision that was a month in the making, Yolo County Superior Court Judge Dan Maguire ruled yesterday that the city of Davis’ new-and-steeper water rates that began last May do not violate the California constitution … while conceding that the new rates may well negatively impact a number of Davis residents, Maguire rightly concluded that that sad reality was not relevant to the case at hand …

“The court’s duty,” Maguire reasoned “is to determine whether the rates are constitutional, and it is for the city’s elected policymakers to determine if they are fair and promote good public policy. The increased water rates will undoubtedly burden many Davis residents who are already struggling to pay their bills, but the elected City Council members, not the court, must balance that burden against the need to address the declining quality of the city’s water supply.” … whether Maguire was sipping tap water or bottled water when considering his opinion is not known …

Added Maguire in discussing the two-pronged rate structure the city instituted last spring: “Both structures impose rates that are significantly higher than the city’s rates before May 1, 2013. The primary reason for this increase is simple: the city has decided to implement the surface water project to meet its water needs, and the funding for this project will come from the ratepayers. The question for the court is not whether these rates in toto are too high (that is a policy question for the city’s leaders and its voters), but whether they are divided in such a way that makes them illegal under Proposition 218.” …

The bottom line here is that while you may not like the rate structure itself or the higher bills that land in your mailbox, that’s a matter to take up with your elected city representatives, not the court … council decisions might not be popular or prudent, but the court will step in only if they violate state law … in Maguire’s opinion, which was explained in great detail in plain, simple English, the Davis rates meet constitutional muster … and that, dear friends, is pretty much the end of this discussion we’ve all been having for the past several years …

APPEAL UNLIKELY … while Superior Court decisions in several other jurisdictions in California have overturned municipal water rate structures in similar, but not identical cases, it seems unlikely that Maguire’s decision will be appealed … given that opponents of the water rates appear to have enough signatures to force the rates themselves to a vote of the people in June or perhaps later, appealing Maguire’s decision doesn’t make sense from a practical standpoint … after all, there’s nothing in the decision, or in the language of Prop. 218, which prevents the population as a whole from voting on municipal water rates … even though the rates have been ruled to be constitutional, there is nothing unconstitutional in voting to overturn those same rates … or in voting to uphold those rates …

It should be noted that while we did vote to approve the surface water project last March, the actual rates were not on the ballot … this will be the first time the voters as a whole will be able to vote simply up or down on the rate structure … assuming, of course, that enough signatures have been gathered to qualify it for the ballot at some point in the future …

PAYING THE PIPER … while I much prefer and have long argued for a simple, straightforward, per-gallon-used rate structure, Maguire’s decision isn’t likely to change the fundamental fact that the surface water project high-speed train left the station long ago and we’re all stuck paying for it, whether we like it or not …

Whether we pay a straight per-gallon-used rate as I’d like or through the more complicated consumption-based fixed rate that punishes some and rewards others depending on when they use the water, it still will have to add up to enough money to pay for the project that brings Sacramento River water to Davis taps …

The CBFR structure kicks in just over three months from now, with the first bills based on that structure arriving next January … when that happens, those who don’t understand the CBFR or who choose to ignore its ramifications in the months ahead will be in for one especially rude awakening when the city water bill lands in their mailbox one day not far down the road …

— Reach Bob Dunning at


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