Local News

Water rate hawk makes demands on city

By From page A1 | June 13, 2014

A local attorney and water rate crusader who has been a thorn in the side of the city regarding the joint Woodland-Davis surface water project is in a position to set terms with the city to get new water rates.

Michael Harrington’s words carry weight because he could file a lawsuit against the yet-to-be-determined rates. A Proposition 218 approval process is scheduled for the rates in early July.

Harrington sued over the city’s former consumption-based water rates, losing two rounds in Yolo Superior Court, and was part of the Committee for Yes on P, the measure that will on June 24 repeal the city’s water rates set in May 2013.

In an email to the city attorney and all of the members of the City Council except Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk, Harrington celebrated the passage of Measure P, which earned 51 percent of the Davis vote on June 3, and made some demands.

“It’s a great win for the ratepayers,” he wrote. “We will have a formal communication soon, but in the meantime I know you are all planning on how to proceed with new rates. We want the city to know that the new rates simply have to be on a citywide vote ballot, as an advisory measure.

“If it passes — and it should if the rates are greatly improved in Version 3.0 — then the city can run the Prop. 218 process with no hindrance.”

Prop. 218 was approved by California voters in November 1996 and requires local governments to allow property owners affected by any proposed new or increased fees to vote on them before they can be levied.

Prop. 218 provides for an all-mail protest vote; in Davis’ case, it would determine if there is support for new water rates. A Prop. 218 election is unusual, because it doesn’t require those in favor to do anything. Only those who are opposed must write in their formal opposition or verbally make that announcement at a public meeting.

As the city’s Utility Rate Advisory Committee works to give the City Council a matrix of water rate recommendations, the elephant in the room has been a question regarding how, when and if Harrington will file a lawsuit.

Douglas Dove, president of Bartle Wells Associates, the city’s water rate consultant, said last week he expects a lawsuit because it’s Davis.

Lingering questions about how and whether going forward with the city’s plan to have new rates in place by October could be derailed by a lawsuit are put to rest in Harrington’s own words. Harrington did not return a request seeking comment Thursday.

“The voters have twice said they want to vote on the rates, and we honor that for the third try at rates,” he wrote. “The most likely ballot for this could be November, but I am sure you are having many discussions as to new revenue measures, too. … We appreciate that the (City Council) really wants to try a fast Prop. 218 process and slam in some new rates, but we ask for your patience so there is a public process that all can get behind.

“There are several very interesting political and legal issues coming up. We will communicate further in the near future.”

The city believes it needs to move fast with its new water rates. State Water Resources Control Board representatives told Davis officials that if its rates are in place by October, the city would be eligible for low-interest state loans for construction of the surface water project.

The city’s 2010 rates do not generate enough revenue to pay for Davis’ share of the project, falling short by at least $215,000 per month.

If the city were to wait until the results of a November advisory measure and then hold a Prop. 218 protest vote, it presumably would miss the deadline for low-interest loans. However, if city officials ignore Harrington, he could tie up new water rates in court, eating up time and scaring away low-interest state financing.

City Councilman Brett Lee said in a text message he hoped Harrington would not pursue “another needless lawsuit that only serves to add expense and delay to the voter-approved water project.”

He also noted that lawsuits take up city staff time that could be better spent working on “very real issues” the city faces.

— Reach Dave Ryan at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews

Dave Ryan

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