Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Bob Dunning: What’s fair? It all comes out in the wash


From page A2 | February 24, 2013 |

In this era of high demand on government services despite dwindling resources, we hear a great deal of talk about how one group of citizens is “subsidizing” services to another. We hear about who’s paying their fair share and who isn’t. We argue about what costs should be shared equally by all members of our society and which ones should be borne by those who use those services most.

We heard it loudly and clearly during the last school parcel tax measure on the local ballot. Some of those who don’t currently have children in the public schools — and maybe never had children in the public schools — wondered out loud about the fairness of taxing them mightily to educate someone else’s kids.

We heard the same thing from people who choose to send their children to private schools, thus easing the burden on the public schools. Why should they have to pay for schools they aren’t using?

For unexplained reasons, seniors in this town are given a pass on school parcel taxes, not because of their financial condition, but simply because of the date on their birth certificate.

“Special needs” kids cost taxpayers more than kids who don’t have special needs. Certain academic endeavors cost the system more than others. Presumably it costs the school district more to outfit a first-class high school chemistry lab than it does an American history classroom. Are the chemistry wizzes therefore getting a bigger piece of the pie?

Are those without children subsidizing those with children? It certainly looks that way. Especially when virtually every public park in the city limits has play structures that are designed almost exclusively for youngsters.

Almost anywhere in the country, if you wish to play tennis on a public court, it’s free to all comers. Many times, even the lights are free.

But try playing golf at a publicly financed course and it’ll cost you a pretty penny. Are golfers subsidizing their tennis playing friends? Again, it certainly looks that way.

I don’t own a bike, but I’ve been paying for this city’s extensive, best-in-the-nation series of bike paths for years. Then again, I suspect I use the public sidewalk considerably more than your average Davisite, so I’m not sure who’s subsidizing whom here.

My kids don’t play soccer, but last time I checked I was paying for all that water being dumped on our many large grassy areas with a net on each end just in case Davis is ever awarded the World Cup final.

Those with means are most certainly subsidizing those without when it comes to the president’s Affordable Care Act, even though in some cases questionable lifestyle choices have led to a number of ailments that dramatically tax the system. And while there are aspects of the president’s policy I may disagree with, in general I think the notion of affordable health care for all citizens is a good one, and one I’m willing to pay more than my fair share to accomplish.

So it is with the current debate about water. Most folks agree that we should all pay for what we use, but there’s now a raging debate about additional “fixed costs” that tend to be the same for everybody.

Some argue that fixed costs — the water connection to your home, personnel costs, billing, having someone read your meter — should be the same for everyone. Others say those who use less water should not only have lower consumption bills (they should and do), but should also have lower fixed costs.

Then again, it costs the city the same amount to install your water meter and read your water meter and bill you and hire consultants and attorneys and all the rest of it whether you use one gallon a day or 100 gallons a day. They still have to put that 46-cent stamp on everyone’s envelope, big users and small users alike.

“Whoops,” says the city employee while licking stamps, “This water bill’s just 12 dollars, we only need a 10-cent stamp on this one.”

These fixed rates — generally lower than consumption rates — have led some to say they are subsidizing others. This from people who are more than happy to accept subsidies from others in other aspects of their lives.

As a low-to-moderate water user, I realize I may in some small way be subsidizing a high water user by paying the same fixed rate, but with six kids either attending or having attended Davis public schools, I figure it all evens out.

Even if none of them ever played soccer.

— Reach Bob Dunning at





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