In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Davis City Council moved quickly to place an initiative on the June 3 ballot that will ask voters to assess the fairness of the city’s water rates.
The rates are scheduled to triple over the next five years to help pay for the joint Woodland-Davis surface water project. They bill ratepayers not only for the water they use but also charge a consumption-based fixed rate to pay for the project’s infrastructure.
Proponents say the rates are designed to place the biggest burden on high water users while encouraging all users to conserve. Critics say they unfairly charge users a premium for their summer water use.
Problem: If voters approve the water rate initiative, the rates will have to be reworked, bond funding for the project could be compromised and the fiscal structure needed to operate the water project would be in doubt.
Ironically, supporters of the water project urged the council to put the initiative on the crowded June 3 ballot precisely for bond financing reasons. The council had the option of waiting until 2016 to put the measure up for a vote.
“This petition took away a lot of hard work that a lot of people did (on Measure I),” water project supporter Jane Runquist said, referring to the March 2013 ballot measure that approved the water project, but not specifically the rates.
Water rate opponents — absent from voicing their side at the meeting — have said the initiative offers all residents a chance to approve the rates, not just property owners, who are the only ones allowed to vote in the Proposition 218 rate-setting process. Renters could vote on costs that affect their rent, water rate opponents say.
Elaine Roberts Musser, another water project supporter and chairwoman of the city’s Water Advisory Committee, said the council faced a difficult choice.
“I don’t think there’s a good decision here,” she said. “Someone’s going to find fault with it.”
City Council candidate Robb Davis was blunt.
“You have to put this on the ballot,” he said, adding that he believes a certain part of the community is actively trying to torpedo the water project by pushing to get the initiative passed. “I think you just have to step up and put it on the ballot.”
With no wide disagreement on the council about the need to place the measure on the June 3 ballot, Mayor Joe Krovoza seemed to find a way to intercept the torpedo.
He asked City Attorney Harriet Steiner what would happen if lower-cost bond financing came through for the project between now and Election Day and the city could lower the current rates to reflect that.
Steiner said as long as the methodology of structuring the rates stays the same, the city could reduce the rates and seemingly make the initiative moot.
Then, declaring the initiative process played out, the council voted 5-0 to send the initiative to the ballot.
— Reach Dave Ryan at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews