July 8 Deadline for Protest
Are our city leaders using the current “drought crisis” to slip through huge water/wastewater increases, far outstripping any actual increased water costs?
With all the buzz about drought I assumed water rate increases were on tap, and sure enough, the City sent all residents a May 20 letter detailing hefty increases of approximately 60 percent over the next four to five years. Using their example, a sample Single Family customer will increase from $119.61 to $193.69. A sample 8 unit building will go from $367.63 ($45.95 per unit) to $611.20 ($76.40 per unit). And you thought health care expenses were spiraling out of control! You can self-diagnose and self-medicate, but you can’t live without water.
Where’s the beef? The City’s letter cites a laundry list (no pun intended) of proposed expenditures with first mention of “funding for local and imported water.” That makes sense – I assume that when I pay my bi-monthly water/wastewater bill most of the cost is water.
Not so. The City’s May 20 letter refers readers to water.smgov.net for more information. So, I downloaded a 24 page Staff Report and waded through the details. What about the rising cost of water? Page Five of the report shows that “Water Purchases” account for only 25 percent of Water Agency costs. (Note that “Employee Salary & Benefits” and “Administrative Indirect Costs” aggregate to 35 percent of Agency costs; forget that dripping faucet – we are awash in salaries and benefits.)
What about rising MWD rates? Page Seven of the report notes that MWD accounts for 85 percent of our city’s water, and MWD rates will increase by 14 percent effective January 1, 2009 (one assumes due to the drought).
Note that in 2001 city water/wastewater implemented annual cost-of-living adjustments so given the revival of inflation, the CPI adjustment alone may be able to offset planned and future MWD increases as a percent of your total water/wastewater bill.
Remaining expenditures to be covered by the 60 percent increase cited in the City’s May 20 letter include: maintenance, capital improvements, financial commitments to L.A.’s Hyperion Plant and bumping up reserve levels by millions. These proposed improvements could just as well be floated as a city bond so everyone has a chance to vote on them, or covered on an intermittent basis as needed by the city’s operating budget until the economy improves.
There appears to be one silver lining in the May 20 letter – a proposed restructuring of charges that eliminates the flat bimonthly “service charges” for water and wastewater making your bill totally reflective of your actual water usage. That seems like a really good idea that will better reward water conservation – but it is also an idea that could be implemented without huge rate increases on one of the necessities of life.
Opposing the rate increase is a real fire drill. According to the city, under the cumbersome rules of CA Proposition 218, a majority of property owners (over 12,000!) must protest the increase in writing and the deadline is a whisker away – July 8. Objectors must send or hand-deliver letters of protest to:
City Clerk, 1685 Main Street, Room
Santa Monica, CA, 90401
Residents may also hand deliver written protests to the public hearing at the same location, Room 213 at 5:45pm on Tuesday, July 8. Any protest at the public hearing must be accompanied by a written protest to count and only property owners’ protests (no renters) count. (Note that all this activity inconveniently culminates right after the 4th of July three-day weekend!)
Times are tough. With rising unemployment, the return of inflation, health care costs continuing to romp, a tanked dollar, the stock market in the doldrums, gas approaching $5 per gallon and other mega economic woes these are indeed troubled times for many Santa Monicans and who is say the long term trend is toward improvement?
To be sure we are in a water crisis (although as the people along the Mississippi can currently attest, one very wet rainy spell can turn things around quickly). I am reminded of another crisis, the Northridge Earthquake, which really whammied our neighborhood. Within hours the employees at the Pavilions store at Lincoln and Montana were rolling pallets of bottled water into the parking lot – handing water out free to residents who had lost water service. Pavilions could have profiteered from the crisis but chose instead to lend a generous helping hand to our community in a troubled time. I can only hope that our city leaders take the same high road during the current drought crisis. Now is no time to use the drought as a canard to lay a couple of golden eggs on two city bureaucracies and raise a vital part of your cost of living way beyond any projected rate of inflation.