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Consultant Shuffle of Fees:

I don’t pretend to have intimate knowledge of the Santa Monica City Council’s goings on, but I have tracked on at least a cursory level two recent episodes regarding rate increases. I can’t help but see a disturbing pattern. In both instances, our elected officials hired outside consultants for guidance. First is a 60% water rate increase inaugurated in 2008 to be implemented over the next three years. Second is the currently proposed boost in parking fees for the downtown district.

In both instances, the consultants employed dread “comparables,” as if setting the price on our city services is somehow akin to selling you and me a house. But wait! It is not the job of the Santa Monica City Council to maximize revenue, but rather to deliver quality city services at the lowest possible price. After all, they are supposed to be working for us, not us working for them.

Take water. With all the talk of drought it seemed likely that our water rates might increase and in spring of ‘08 the City Council pounced with a May 20 letter to all Santa Monica property owners announcing that unless a majority of owners (no renters allowed) filed written protest by July 8, a 60% water rate increase would go into effect. Something smelled fishy from the start. Did the city really need to schedule the deadline for written protests on the back cusp of the 4th of July weekend? Was this inconvenient timing a premeditated tactic to try and limit the number of protests? If so: It worked.

One assumes the majority of the cost of running our city’s water agency is the purchase of water from the Metropolitan Water District. But no. Read the fine print and “Water Purchases” account for only about 25 percent of agency costs. (In contrast, the categories “Employee Salary & Benefits” and “Indirect Administrative Costs” account for 35 percent of agency costs.) And even with the drought, MWD’s cost of water had increased only 14 percent starting in January, 2009 — not 60 percent.

Perhaps in the future a water consultant could look at the “big picture” as it affects We the People of Santa Monica. According to a recent opinion piece in the L.A. Times by Rebecca Solnit, 80 percent of California’s water goes to agriculture, not to residential users. Of the 80 percent, half of that goes to just four crops — cotton, rice, alfalfa and pasturage (irrigated grazing land) — and these four crops represent less than one percent of the state’s wealth. Water is, after all, a necessity of life and what screwy logic puts rice and alfalfa ahead of 37 million state residents?

Parking may not be a necessity of life but it’s close. The City Council has ordered staff to prepare implementation plans for major parking fee increases in the downtown district based upon recommendations of yet another consultant. Tell me I’m wrong but these increases seem like a done deal the day the consultant was hired. The report cites bizarre comparables as far away as Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, but neglects to mention that Downtown Disney 45 minutes away offers free parking to visitors for three hours, expandable to five hours with validation.

The City Council seized upon downtown employees who supposedly leave the worksite every two hours to move their vehicles and park free. One can’t possibly help but wonder how many such poor working folks are that desperate — and does their number seriously impact usage of the 10,000+ downtown spaces? For a city that prides itself winning living wages for local hotel workers, why the dead aim at minimum wage retail workers presumably including single moms, immigrants and other of the most economically vulnerable segments?

Giving the recent two-for-two track record of consultants recommending rate increases for city services, it begs the question: Has the city ever hired a consultant who did NOT recommend a rate increase, or least recommended keeping fees constant? Maybe it’s time for our City Council to hire a consultant to review its use of consultants. Or maybe the final consultants — the voters — will adjust the situation and save us from runaway fee increases embraced by “outside experts.”

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