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Drowning Piggy

Water agencies throughout California are paying exceptionally close attention to an upcoming appellate court ruling that could dramatically change the way water bills are computed, potentially ending the tiered rates designed to promote conservation.

Whether the ruling would apply to Monterey Peninsula ratepayers isn’t clear, however, because the court case focuses on government-operated water systems and the Peninsula water purveyor, California American Water, is a private company.

With the majority of Californians served by municipal or special district water systems, state officials would likely scramble to amend either state law or the state Constitution to eliminate the language that led a lower court to strike down tiered rates. One possibility is that the higher water rates for heavy users would be recharacterized as penalties instead of fees, skirting state law that requires government agencies to charge no more than the actual cost of providing services. Los Angeles Times article on the case.

An association of government water agencies says in court papers that tiered rates are critical because they provide strong incentive for customers to conserve and because those paying higher rates are essentially providing the money for future water supply projects. Only one water district, Mesa, in Costa Mesa, has broken with the pack. It says its customers have effectively conserved water through voluntary measures without the need for tiered rates.

The underlying case is the Capistrano Taxpayers Association versus the city of San Juan Capistrano. Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory Munoz ruled for the taxpayers group in 2013 but the city has maintained its staggered rates pending a decision from the Fourth District Appellate Court in Santa Ana. That court heard arguments in January and is expected to rule shortly.

In San Juan Capistrano, the city created a rate structure that has the heaviest water users paying 366 percent more than the thriftiest customers. The top rate there works out to $9.05 per 100 cubic feet of water. In contrast, Cal Am’s top rate for residential customers is about $45 per 100 cubic feet.

Munoz found that the city had failed to demonstrate that the cost of water in the higher tiers “were proportional to the costs of providing water services to its customers.” In Monterey County, Cal Am has never argued that the tiered rates are tied to any actual costs but are only intended to promote conservation. The higher fees in recent years have sparked numerous complaints about relatively minor leaks or unexplained increases in water usage leading to some homeowners receiving bills in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for one month. Cal Am has denied that it profits from the tiered rates.

In the Orange County case, Judge Munoz also ruled that water agencies could not charge different rates for different classes of customers, such as residential users and commercial users. Cal Am’s effective top rate for most commercial users is about 20 percent of the top rate for residences. (Cal Am does have a higher commercial rate but only for customers who aren’t willing to fill out a form saying they conserve water when they can.)

At the center of the litigation is Proposition 218, which state voters approved in 1996 to limit the ability of government agencies to raise taxes or fees. It requires that government fees not exceed the actual costs of service and requires the agencies to obtain voter approval before raising fees or taxes. Proposition 218 is the basis of a recent lawsuit aimed at the Monterey Bay air pollution control district, which allegedly collects fees well in excess of actual costs.

Judge Munoz agreed with the Capistrano taxpayers that that city is collecting a premium not based on any actual costs. In response, the city and an association of government water agencies argue that they are essentially charging big water users for the cost of future water facilities that wouldn’t be needed if they did a better job of conserving. They also argue that the state Constitution mandates water conservation and that tiered rates are the most effective method of achieving that goal.

CALIFORNIA CONSTITUTION ARTICLE 10  WATER

SEC. 2.  It is hereby declared that because of the conditions prevailing in this State the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised with a view to the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare.

In court filings, the Association of California Water Agencies and the League of California Cities cite fears that if Munoz’s ruling remains intact, water providers would be required to account for the exact cost of water from each source – groundwater, rivers, desalination, wastewater treatment, etc., — and calculate each customer’s bill based on whatever blend the customer is receiving. The water agencies say that would be prohibitively expensive. They also worry that the ruling would affect how they charge customers for certain programs, such as the cost of water recycling programs. As it is, those costs are included in the bills of most customers, even those who don’t receive recycled water or directly benefit from the recycling programs.

The city says that if it can’t  spread the cost of such programs throughout its customer base, the cost to some ratepayers would be excessive. The city says that could actually result in increased rates for everyone because it could eliminate the use of some supplementary water supplies, requiring expansion of the overall water system.

In court papers, the “city contends that it is appropriate to distribute the cost of recycled water to all ratepayers because they benefit  from this practice in that by supplying recycled water to ratepayers who can  use it,  this  displaces demand for local potable supplies that can  thus be made available to other customers.  In other words, City’s position is that if recycled water customers had to bear the whole cost of this service, its cost would be prohibitively high, demand for potable sources would increase, and everyone’s rates would rise due to the need for more expensive water imports.”

Below, attorney Jim Markman explains the impact of Judge Munoz’s ruling to the Brea City Council. Markman is a water specialist who is the city attorney in Brea and who also represents the Marina Coast Water District in its continuing litigation with Cal Am and Monterey County

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Changes ahead daily newspaper headlineCity council members in the Southern California city of Carson are considering cancellation of the city’s subscriptions to a local newspaper and inviting city residents to boycott the paper. According to a councilman leading the effort, the Daily Breeze newspaper “over-reports the negatives and under-reports the positives.”

The approach is a mistake. City officials should be thanking the Daily Breeze for covering things in Carson, even if the paper doesn’t always get it right. It should be encouraging people in the city to subscribe to and advertise in the Daily Breeze, and any other publication that even occasionally sends a reporter to sit in on a City Council meeting.

Perhaps the Carson City Council hasn’t noticed that newspapers are having a tough time. Most papers are so understaffed that they seldom cover city council meetings in their own cities these days and are much less likely to cover a meeting in a suburb. The Daily Breeze was once known as the Torrance Daily Breeze and at one time it did a bang-up job covering Torrance. Nowadays, not so much. Other cities in the area, really not so much.

The Daily Breeze recently published a fairly detailed account of political maneuvering in nearby Carson, something that Editor Mike Anastasi says might have had something to do with the unrest within council chambers. But while the editor insists otherwise, Carson receives little day-to-day coverage from the Daily Breeze and much of it is crime news. Worse, council members said, the paper is quick to report that a crime occurred in Carson when it was actually outside the city.

City officials have some valid gripes. Just about anyone who deals with a newspaper more than occasionally has some valid gripes. They are imperfect enterprises. But the Carson City Council, and even more so the people of Carson, should consider themselves fortunate that a newspaper of any sort pays them any attention at all. Most small-city governments receive almost no coverage, so there is less and less likelihood that anyone will notice when the mayor does something stupid, the council makes a giant mistake or the city manager uses his city credit card to buy a set of golf clubs.

Carson isn’t far from the city of Bell, home to one of the messiest and juiciest municipal corruption cases of the past decade. The city manager was slipping himself taxpayer money at every opportunity and the City Council members didn’t care because he was taking care of them as well. It was a situation that would not have occurred, could not have occurred, 20 years ago when the Los Angeles Times semi-regularly attended Bell Council meetings and routinely scrutinized the city budget. By the time the city manager’s greed got the best of him, no news outlets of any sort were covering much of anything in Bell.

Carson officials have every right to be upset with the Daily Breeze if the newspaper has been sloppy about pinpointing crime scenes or generally badmouthing the city. The way to fix that is to make a few phone calls. Not a big deal. But inviting the paper to stay away, canceling subscriptions and urging advertisers to go elsewhere, isn’t going to make anything better and it almost assuredly will make things worse. My advice to the council is to invite Daily Breeze reporters in to talk, to cover meetings, to take a tour of the city, even to do an expose’ on whatever issues ail Carson. True, the council members might bring unwanted attention to themselves, but their job is to serve their cities and their constituents. The people of Carson are not served by being ignored.

Many Partisan readers have probably also seen references to troubles in the daily newspaper scene locally  in the past couple of weeks, and some have responded much like the Carson folks, negatively.

It came out last week that reporters and others at the Salinas Californian are having to reapply for their jobs, under different job titles, and that they’re likely to be playing a game of musical chairs, journalism style. There won’t be quite as many jobs as there are applicants.

Also flirting with death spiral status, Monterey Herald Publisher Gary Omernick told his staff Tuesday night that another round of layoffs approaches. First word was one or two people. According to an account in the Californian, the layoffs could come from any of four departments, not all from the newsroom. The publisher said the paper wasn’t making its financial goals. It has been widely reported that the Herald is for sale, along with the Daily Breeze and some 70 other papers in the Digital First Media group. Boosting the bottom line, through layoffs or other means, could boost the sales price

One potential buyer, of course, is the giant Gannett newspaper chain, which owns the Californian. There are better options. Much, much better, but cancelling your subscription won’t do anything to advance them.

There also has been talk of Google buying the newspapers, which certainly seems odd at first glance in that the rise of the Internet has played a significant role in the decline of newspapers. Google executives have said they don’t want to see newspapers dry up and blow away because most of the news you see when you sign onto a Google page comes from newspapers. Without newspapers, where does Google get news items for your edification and amusement? From City Hall press releases?

Hardly a day goes by that some Partisan reader doesn’t mentioned cancelling a Herald subscription. One reader commented on one of my Facebook postings that she gets all the news she needs from free sources. Because I formerly worked at the Herald and left without a parade, some people seem to think I like hearing these things. Not at all.

In fact, I hate hearing about cancelled subscription and newspaper boycotts I am glad that readers care enough about newspapers and local news to get angry when they feel they are not being served properly, but I urge Monterey County residents, and Carson residents, to cling to their subscriptions as long as possible, or to pop a few quarters into the machine from time to time. (Now if the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Herald employees, calls for a boycott in response to the new layoffs, my tune will change.)

I have worked for newspapers all my adult life, so I undoubtedly have an inflated view of their value, but I’ll share it with you anyway. A community of any size isn’t really a community unless it has a newspaper, be it printed or digitized. Many folks know I like the Carmel Pine Cone about as much as I like Dick Cheney, but I will freely admit that the Pine Cone makes Carmel a better place and provides the community with a common language, even if they use it to argue.

Many if not most newspapers are shells of what they once were, but I would much rather see continued support while people in the news biz search for salvation in the form of a new business model or even some miracle. As newspapers go, the Herald is rather expensive, but most of you reading this can afford the price. What you can’t afford is letting City Hall, whether in Monterey, Salinas or Carson, decide what you need to know about what is going on in City Hall. What you can’t afford is letting Cal Am just go about its business without anyone paying attention except Ron Weitzman, George Riley and the Partisan.

Renewing your subscription is not the same as signaling satisfaction with the downsized product you’re receiving today. Renewing your subscription is a way to signal your hope for a better product, and for stronger coverage, as soon as someone figures out how to bring it about.

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