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PUBLIC TAKEOVER EFFORT SHOULD BE FAVORED THIS TIME

For much of my journalism career, one of my roles was to offer advice in the form of editorials but it was more of an exercise than a meaningful attempt to get anyone to act a certain way. I considered it a success if anyone read the whole piece and gave it any thought.

The advice I am about to give is different. For one thing, the intended audience is much smaller. It is for the people who make decisions on behalf of California American Water Co., the principal purveyor of water to the Monterey Peninsula. And it is meant to be persuasive and not just informative.

So here goes.

Cal Am, it is time to sell.

For the benefit of your company, your shareholders and the people of the Monterey Peninsula, it is time for you to sit down at the bargaining table and try to work out a fair price for your highly successful and equally controversial enterprise. Coming to terms with the community, without a protracted takeover process, will save you money. It will maximize the return to your shareholders and that, after all, is what you are all about.

So why am I saying this? And why now?

It’s partly because I went to a forum Monday night in Monterey in which the leadership of Public Water Now sketched the basics of the group’s upcoming effort to convert Cal Am from a privately owned, profit-taking business to a publicly owned, public-benefit operation. There were about 140 people there and, as far as I could tell, none of them was from Cal Am. If there had been, I suspect they’d be writing a memo to their bosses making pretty much the same argument I’m making here.

A key argument against a public takeover effort will be that it has been tried before, most recently four years ago, and it failed then. Don’t be fooled. Although Cal Am outspent the public takeover forces 20-1, the margin of victory, was 55-45, closer than anyone expected. If this thing goes to the ballot again, you can expect the numbers to be reversed.

Since the 2013 vote on what was called Measure O, the rates Cal Am charges its customers have risen dramatically, more than doubling in many cases, and they are poised to keep going up, dramatically, for as long as the company owns the water operation. A key argument against Measure O was that a public takeover wouldn’t be cost effective. Cal Am has crippled that argument by squeezing every ounce of profit out of its customers.

The last straw for many Peninsula residents was the company’s successful effort to raise rates to make up for money it didn’t make while the community was working hard to conserve water because of drought. Cal Am wasn’t alone in this extraction. Many publicly owned water systems in the state did the same thing, but they weren’t dealing with such expensive water.

Here’s more. The 140 people at the meeting Monday night weren’t a bunch of fuzzy-headed activists. There were past and present members of Peninsula city councils and the water management district board. There were lawyers and retired CEOs. This wasn’t a bunch of twenty-somethings. This was a bunch of sixty-somethings, people who know a little something about elections. Many of them stopped to make  campaign contributions on their way out.

Also in the crowd were numerous people who were active in last year’s Measure Z campaign. That was the successful measure to ban fracking in Monterey County. Exxon and Mobil made like Cal Am and piled big money into the fight to defeat the measure. By the time it was over, they had spent more than $5 million on slick and tricky advertising that twisted the measure’s intent. In the end, Measure Z passed with more than 55 percent of the vote, a result that should scare the heck out of Cal Am’s accountants.

One of the speakers Monday night was the woman who ran the Measure Z campaign and the similar campaign that accomplished the same goals in San Benito County. She knows how to run a grassroots campaign, and so do many others who were in the room.

The people who ran the Measure O campaign were there Monday night, of course. The ringleader is Public Water Now’s George Riley, who knows almost as much about water as Cal Am. After Measure O went down to defeat, Riley didn’t walk away to lick his wounds. He dug into water issues. He continued studying Cal Am and he studied the campaign it ran against Measure O. It is safe to say he learned a lot in four years.

Four years ago, the focus of Cal Am’s fight against Measure O was the company’s desalination project, its complex and expensive answer to the Peninsula’s chronic water shortage. Cal Am campaign ads hit hard on the theme that a public takeover would delay the desalination project, which, the advertising assured us, was looming just over the horizon.

George Riley

Four years later, the desalination venture has added untold millions of dollars to the future financial burden imposed on Cal Am’s customers, but groundbreaking is no closer.The project has been stalled by technical issues and conflict-of-interest concerns, perhaps even by lack of will on the part of Cal Am. At the moment its product is something it pumps for free from the Carmel River. Even though state utility rules guarantee that it will make money in the process, getting a desal plant built is a difficult and expensive task. Critical issues, such as water rights and basic pumping technology, remain unsettled.

At the same time, alternative solutions to the Peninsula’s water shortage have moved ahead, including a plan for an ambitious water recycling project that just last week received approval for the bulk of its financing plan. That is something Cal Am’s desalination planners can only dream of.

What that means is that the need for a large and expensive desalination plant is weakening. As it stands, Cal Am looks to charge its customers hundreds of millions of dollars to treat much more water than the Peninsula needs, water that likely would be used to create subdivisions for which there is no demand. No wonder political support for Cal Am is drying up.

Cal Am officials likely have noticed the uptick in letters to the editor critical of Cal Am and its ridiculous water rates. Those letters are from actual bill-paying customers, not Public Water Now activists. The issue of Cal Am rates is not just something for Public Water Now to turn into a slogan. Real people are really upset with the cost of water and don’t like it one bit that the cost here is about as high as it is anywhere.

A lot has changed in four years. When Measure O was on the ballot, the Peninsula mayor’s water advisory board played a key role in urging its defeat. The makeup of that board has changed. Most notably, former Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett is out of office and out of power. It was Burnett who coalesced the mayoral opposition to Measure O and who coordinated strategies with the Peninsula business community’s support for Cal Am. For elected officials, supporting Cal Am politically is far riskier now than was then.

As Riley pointed out Monday, the makeup of the water management district board has changed as well. That’s important because the district would become the initial operator of the water system once Cal Am was removed. Former Sand City Mayor David Pendergrass is gone from the district board, along with his unflinching support for Cal Am. New county Supervisor Mary Adams is going onto the board, bringing her brand of quiet progressivism with her.

If the ballot measure proceeds, Cal Am officials will spend millions fighting it while telling the shareholders that they are protecting the investment. Then, when the measure prevails, Cal Am will spend millions in litigation, fighting the election results initially and then watching as platoons of $500 per hour lawyers negotiate over the public purchase price of the system. In the end, a court, not Cal Am, will decide on the purchase price.

Cal Am officials on the Peninsula have insisted for years that their system here is barely if at all profitable, yet they have made it clear that they will fight to keep it. If anyone knows any Cal Am shareholders, you should send them this piece and encourage them to ask the company whether this fight really makes sense. Doesn’t it make more sense to start negotiating the price now?

It is time for the company to recognize that the tide has turned. By working every angle to squeeze maximum profit out of every aspect of the operation, they have invited a takeover by a publicly operated management structure intent on public service rather than rate of return.

I don’t mean to suggest that the takeover effort is a slam dunk if Cal Am resists. It will require tremendous energy and effort. But by every indication, there is an ample supply of energy and will and a diminishing set of reasons to keep Cal Am around.

So, Cal Am, if you’re thinking like the good corporate citizen you claim to be, you should conclude that it was nice while it lasted but it’s time to move on. And even if you’re thinking like the calculating enterprise that you really are, you should realize that sticking around means throwing lots of good money into a pot you can’t win. To steal a line from the anti-Measure O campaign, it’s a risk you can’t afford.

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Read This Unless You Like High Water Bills

????Should large commercial and industrial concerns on the Monterey Peninsula receive preferential water rates, lower than the rates paid by California American Water Co.’s residential customers?

It is a fairly simple question but there’s nothing simple about getting it before the public for meaningful discussion. The public was shielded from the process before the special commercial rates were enacted a year ago. Now, a public forum on the issue may or may not take place Oct. 13 in Monterey. Cal Am seems to have agreed to take part but hotel industry representatives aren’t so sure they want to see that happen.

Some background, and then you decide for yourself what to make of it.

Since last October, the hotel industry and other large water users have enjoyed a price break that was negotiated in private by Cal Am, industry representatives and the California Public Utilities Commission. The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District was also involved in the discussions though its role isn’t entirely clear.

The business interests wisely recognized that Cal Am rates were headed up and nothing but up over the next several years. They feared, among other things, that the cost of the proposed desalination plant plus other efforts would double or triple their water rates, potentially devastating the hospitality industry and others with heavy water needs. So they banded together as a coalition of big water users, hired accountants, lawyers and other representatives, and created a price structure based on flat rates, as opposed to the tiered rates that are intended to promote conservation among residential water customers. They also managed to get for themselves relatively low rates for any businesses claiming to have taken significant conservation measures. No proof required.

It is entirely possible, of course, that special water rates for private industry is in everyone’s best interest. The “What’s Good for GM” argument. If higher water costs resulted in hotel closures, higher hospital bills and lower taxable income for some enterprises, the impact on the entire Peninsula could be more harmful than relatively high water bills for residents. Presumably that was a big part of the pitch the business community made to the Public Utilities Commission, but there’s no real way to tell. There’s also no way to tell whether anyone responded on behalf of the residents’ interests or was allowed to join into the cost-benefit analysis.

As of last October, the steeply tiered rate structure for residential customers on the Peninsula started at 56 cents for the first 100 gallons supplied to a household with minimal water usage.

For a household on the other end of the conservation spectrum, a household irrigating significant landscaping and doing little to keep use down, the rate potentially topped out 10 times higher, $5.65 per 100 gallons, not counting various surcharges. The rates at the high end help explain the well-publicized cases of monster water bills for households experiencing water leaks or phantom usage. (These figures come from Cal Am’s public rate schedules from a year ago so they could be both out of date and overly simplified, but they remain useful for comparison purposes.)

Until last October, commercial users were charged one price if they kept their water use below a monthly allotment based on type of business, past usage and size. They were charged a higher price if they exceeded their allotment.

Since last October, the rates for commercial users have started at 89 cents per 100 gallons, higher than the bottom-tier residential rate. That is for commercial users who do relatively little irrigation and who submit paperwork claiming they have adopted solid conservation techniques.

Enterprises with irrigation requirements closer to average pay a rate about 12 percent more. Those that irrigate more than 10 percent of their property, and who claim to be fully compliant with best conservation practices, pay about 12 percent on top of that, or about $1.11 per 100 gallon.

For practical purposes, that makes $1.10 per 100 gallons the highest effective commercial water rate, as compared to $5.65 for residential users. Technically there is a higher commercial rate, more than $2 per 100 gallons, but that is only for businesses that don’t even claim to be following good conservation practices. It seems unlikely that any business would remain at that level for more than one month. Even those businesses would be paying less than half as much per unit as residences at the highest tier.

(For commercial users, the new rate structure actually uses 75 gallons as the standard unit of measurement rather than the 100 gallons in place for residential users. It has been suggested by cynics that it is meant to make comparisons more difficult.)

When the Public Utilities Commission approved the special commercial rates, there was little publicity beyond a news article and an editorial in the Monterey Herald. I wrote the editorial, raising questions about the different rate structure and the process used to create it. Personally, I received only one call of complaint. It was from  Mike Zimmerman, who is now the chief operating officer for the Cannery Row Co. He said he would set up a meeting to discuss the issue and would call back. He didn’t.

I speculated at the time that the hotel industry decided to go low-profile, hoping the rate structure not receive much attention. I suspect that may still be the case.

The issue finally began generating some interest earlier this year during the campaign over Measure O, which would have started a formal effort toward a public takeover of Cal Am. Now, Public Water Now is pushing for some public discussion of the rates and the ramifications. Public Water Now, by the way, was not daunted by Measure O’s failure and is continuing its public-ownership effort.

Plans for the Oct. 13 session apparently grew out of an Aug. 19 Monterey City Council session in which Cal Am representatives made some sort of a presentation about rates. The minutes don’t reflect exactly what was said, but some went away believing that Cal Am was on board for a wider ranging discussion of rates of all types. Out of that session, Public Water Now’s George Riley proposed an October workshop on the topic of commercial vs. residential rates. An exchange of emails since then seems to put the idea in question, however.

In one, John Narigi of the Monterey Plaza Hotel told Riley that Cal Am had not agreed to a discussion involving the commercial rates.

“It was an agreement to discuss and provide additional information/education regarding the current rates for residents and answer additional questions regarding this specific topic,” Narigi wrote.“You are now asking for a panel discussion on ‘whatever topics the parties want and would assume the public as well’??? Please provide an honest and accurate agenda so we the coalition can decide if there is even a need or desire to participate.”

The coalition Narigi mentioned is the Coalition of Peninsula Businesses, headed by the Monterey County Hospitality Association.

In an email to Narigi, Ron Weitzman of the WaterPlus group said his understanding was that the discussion would involve both commercial and residential rates.

“There are obviously two sides to the issue. To hear only one side would be propaganda, not education,” wrote Weitzman. “…We do not question your need to be rid of the tiered rate structure. Residential ratepayers would also like to be rid of it … .”

So there you are. See you at Monterey City Hall on Oct. 13. Or not. The hotel industry will let us know.

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PURELY OPINION: Tear the pump house down

If Cal Am water proposed building a pump house like the one it owns on Eardley Avenue in Pacific Grove, it would be met by considerable squawking. Too big. Wrong location. What about the trees? Make  ‘em pay for an environmental impact report.

Why then is a proposal to tear it down sparking a similarly negative reaction?

Because it’s old.

Historic preservation is a grand thing. People and institutions on the Peninsula have done a rather good job of it and it enriches the lives of everyone who passes through here. The places that have ignored history in favor of “progress” are much the poorer for it.

But not everything old is intrinsically worth saving. The modest, one-story Cal Am structure, which is no longer in use, looks to be somewhat interesting. Encircled by trees, it is not entirely an eyesore even with its boarded-up doors and windows.  PG Mayor Bill Kampe has suggested putting a fence around it to keep people out while officialdom ponders its fate.

It is a good thing that some thought is going into this, but it would be a shame if the thinking is followed by a bunch of spending. We don’t need an expensive study to tell us what we already know. It’s an old pump house that isn’t used any more. And we don’t need to make Cal Am or anyone else spend a bunch of money to restore it. Cal Am customers are already paying too much for everything Cal Am-related, and most Pacific Grove taxpayers would rather pay for street repairs or a functional police department.

I say tear it down and plant some more trees.

Disagree? Tell me why. Add a comment below or send a commentary to calkinsroyal@gmail and we’ll share it.

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I Pledge Allegiance to Desalination

47985_10151612107346163_841450537_n 2When a water district or local government in California looks at water supply projects and determines that desalination is the way to go, the first question local taxpayers might want to ask is whether the agency is a member of CalDesal.

If it is, there’s a good chance the decision was made before the studies, before anyone looked at any other methodologies.

You probably haven’t heard of CalDesal. I’m a fairly serious student of California water issues and I hadn’t until Gary Patton mentioned it in his Land Use Report this week.

I’ll tell you more about the organization in a sec. First, though, I’d like to share its Desalination Pledge. Presumably the pledge has been taken by the entire membership, including 31 water private and public water purveyors, including our very own California American Water Co. and the city of Santa Cruz.

 “I believe that in order to continue to have sufficient safe and reliable water supplies to provide for public benefit throughout the state, California must consider and develop all viable water supply sources. Therefore desalination and salinity management technology should continue to be developed with the encouragement of the state, its agencies and its municipalities.”

I’m glad to see the pledge didn’t end with the words “at all costs.”

Desalination is and probably should be considered a proper component of the measures being taken to ease the water shortage in many parts of California. For better or worse, it is part of the path the Monterey Peninsula is on as we try to ward off a state-ordered cutback in water use. But, for me at least, the existence of CalDesal and its oath have a backfire effect.

  • Why does this expensive technology, which comes with some heavy environmental baggage, need a lobby?
  • Why don’t directors of the various member agencies, such as the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, recognize that it looks funny for them to be paying into a group that also includes some 40 engineering firms, construction companies and others that would benefit handsomely from a boom in desalination projects?
  • Why do they need an oath?
  • Should someone write oaths to groundwater storage and recovery, conservation and wastewater treatment.

It’s no surprise that Cal Am is a CalDesal member. Several of the consulting and engineering firms it has worked with on the Monterey County desalination project are members. So is the Nossaman law firm in Sacramento, a key player in the continuing controversies over desalination’s past and future in Monterey County. As a private company, Cal Am isn’t constrained by the conflict-of-interest rules that govern public agencies, even if it is incorrectly listed in CalDesal paperwork as a public agency. Even so, here’s hoping the dues come out of profits instead of my water bill.

A quick effort to find out more about CalDesal turned up little. Its board chairman comes from a Southern California water district and its executive director, Ron Davis, formerly held the same position with the Association of California Water Agencies. That’s the group that worked closely with Cal Am to successfully fight the recent Measure O, which could have led to a public takeover of Cal Am.

I looked into the CalDesal address, looking for more clues. I expected to see that the group shared office space with the Association of California Water Agencies or the Nossaman firm. Instead, Suites 950 at 770 L St. in Sacramento is a glorified mail drop or, as they call them these days, a “virtual office.” As the sales literature says, “Impress your clients with a virtual address.”

I am impressed, though probably not the way they were hoping.

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