Bob Dunning

Bob Dunning: Water rates are now in the people’s hands

By From page A2 | February 13, 2014

You may want to take note of this date, for I come not to bury the Davis City Council but to praise it.
Yes, at the end of a long and arduous Tuesday night meeting, with the fate of the free world hanging in the balance, the Davis City Council did the right thing by agreeing to put the citizen initiative to overturn our new water rates on the June 2014 ballot.
The council had several foot-dragging options available that could have delayed the vote all the way into 2016 or perhaps even have prevented a vote altogether, but it wisely decided that the spirit of the initiative process should be respected in the shortest possible time frame.
For sure, the initiative does not represent the so-called “will of the people.” While 1,700 valid signatures on a petition were more than enough to qualify the measure for the ballot, 1,700 is far short of a majority of this town’s voters.
The “will of the people” on this issue will be on full display for everyone to see and assess once the votes are counted come June 3.
If the rates are overturned, it will be back to the drawing board for the city, with the future of the surface water project on uncertain ground.
After all, if you go back to the language of Measure I, which passed with 54 percent of the vote last March, it asks “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)?”
In other words, the water project appears to be legally dependent upon the “adoption of water rates.” Thus, if those very rates are overturned by a vote of the people, one could argue that the water project itself fails. The city, not surprisingly, would argue otherwise.
In any regard, as a practical matter, if the rates are overturned the city won’t have the money to fund its share of the project, which presents a number of interesting, if troubling, scenarios.
Last month, of course, Yolo County Superior Court Judge Dan Maguire ruled that our new water rates do indeed fit the proportionality requirement of Proposition 218. In other words, the rates are legal. To use the judge’s words, they meet “constitutional muster.”
Maguire’s ruling, however, does not in any way prevent a citizens’ initiative to overturn those very rates.
Additionally, he didn’t necessarily rule that the rates were “fair” to all ratepayers, since the fairness issue was not before the court.
In a legal sense, the term “proportionality” is not the definition of fairness. Rather, according to Proposition 218, “The amount of a fee or charge imposed upon any person as an incident of property ownership shall not exceed the proportional cost of the service attributable to the parcel.”
In this case “proportional” simply means equal to the cost of providing the service. Some would call that “fair,” while others would say true fairness would reflect a ratepayer’s ability to pay.
Fairness, after all, if a highly relative term.
Is it fair that high-income citizens are in a higher tax bracket than low-income citizens? Some would say “yes” and others would say “no,” but as a society we’ve decided it’s something we can live with despite frequent protestations from those paying the higher tax rates.
Is it fair that some kids get a free lunch at school and other kids don’t? Is it fair that some states tax Social Security benefits and other states don’t? The list goes on and on.
What we’ll be voting on in June, thanks to the council’s ruling Tuesday night, are the rates, pure and simple. The beauty of that is that the rates are now in the capable hands of the good citizens of this town to decide as they will.
And while the recent decisions of a thoughtful Superior Court judge or five dedicated City Council members or the many hard-working members of the Water Advisory Committee are to be respected, it’s never a bad thing to let the people have the final say.
I’m confident we can all live with whatever the voters decide come June 3.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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