Bob Dunning

Bob Dunning: The law is the law; don’t break it

By From page A2 | February 07, 2013

A single line in Tom Sakash’s front-page piece about the water issue one day last week said it all.

Wrote Sakash, “After receiving multiple requests from the media for information about whether the city pays for its own water, a city official admitted this week that it doesn’t.”

Sakash, of course, had to sift through several layers of the city’s answer to determine the answer to what was posed as a simple “yes-no” question.

The response came in the strange dialect known as “CitySpeak” instead of plain, simple English. CitySpeak is generally used when the city has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar but wishes to argue that the jar wasn’t really full of cookies.

Wrote the city: “Presently the city does not separately account for water used at city facilities.”

Note the clever use of the word “presently,” which hints that maybe the city used to separately account for water used at city facilities or may do so one day in the future. But presently, no. Presently, the lights at the Super Bowl are not working.

Adds the memo, “The city also does not charge the Water Division rent for its use of city park space where some wells are located and the reimbursement of other city services and facilities is overdue for reconciliation and an update.”

Sounds like maybe the city and the Water Division need a marriage counselor to help resolve their differences.

“Over the past few years, the City Council has considered how to fund water used at city facilities. In the past few years the city has been installing water meters at city facilities and properties to better determine how much water is being used at each site and to develop water use and water conservation measures for these facilities and properties.”

Never mind that the city has for years been hammering the rest of us with a punitive “tier” structure if we fail to conserve, it is just now starting to “develop” water conservation strategies for itself.

“With the adoption of the new water rates, and the completion of the determination of the cost of the services and facilities that the water utility is obtaining from the city, the city will transition to metered charges for city facilities and cost allocations to the utility from the general city funding obligations.”

So, while the city wrongly claims that its current system of not paying for water is in no way illegal, it will nevertheless one day transition to paying for the water it uses after all.

Your honor, I promise to stop embezzling any day now.

City Attorney Harriet Steiner told Sakash that the city does not keep track of the water it uses “to the penny,” when it fact it doesn’t’ even know how much water it uses in the first place.

As one city official noted in an explanatory email, “Staff are installing and repairing water meters at all city facilities to measure the amount of water being used in order to accurately calculate the water bill to allow paying with the proper city funds.”

Translation: we have no idea how much water we’re using and we don’t pay for any of it anyway, but we do recognize there is a proper way to do this and currently we are not doing this properly.

The email went on to explain that “The Water Enterprise neither pays into the city general fund for its use of city property and all of its other direct and indirect services received, nor receives payment from the city for use of water at city facilities. This ‘in-kind’ exchange of values received has been in place for some time and the city recognizes the need to transition to a more formal accounting of revenues and expenses between the Water Enterprise and the city.”

What we have here, allegedly, is some sort of barter system, which is just ducky. Not to mention illegal.

In fact, I’m trying to convince the city at this very moment to unhook my water meter and suspend my water bills in exchange for my agreement to have my family pick up trash on the North Davis greenbelt every other Saturday in July from 3 to 6 p.m. No response so far.

There are those who argue that if the city doesn’t pay for its own water, it’s a wash anyway. What should the city do, write a check to itself?

Well, for starters, what the city is doing is against the law. In a nearly identical case several years ago, the Sacramento County Grand Jury found the city of Sacramento in violation of Prop. 218 because it was paying only 15 percent of the actual cost of the water it used.

Prop. 218 says that all of our water bills must be “proportional” to the water each of us actually uses. When a major water user such as the city of Davis pays nothing at all for its water, the cost to the rest of us necessarily rises. That’s a violation of proportionality.

The city has various sources of income. Some of us contribute more in some areas and less in others. Some don’t contribute much of anything. It truly varies from individual to individual.

As usual, though, those with the least end up suffering the most when proportionality is violated.

Since Prop. 218 also forbids any kind of water rate concession to low-income households (proportionality again), those households may feel a pinch from the city’s use of free water while the rest of us can absorb the cost as nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

But the bottom line here is that the law is the law. If you don’t like the law, change it. But don’t break it.

Even the city, with its promise to one day get its act together, admits that it’s out of compliance. Why it took the city so long to admit the obvious is another troubling matter altogether.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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