Your Cal Am bill is going to be going up again. If you’re thinking 30 percent, you’re getting warm. Thirty-five? Warmer. Forty? Good guess
RATES UP FOR MOST BUT DOWN FOR COMMERCIAL USERS
When I received my most recent letter from Cal Am, I knew it wasn’t a late Christmas card. The first thing I noticed was the little blue box in the lower corner. “See inside for important information about your rates.”
Based on experience, I was pretty sure this was not signal of lower rates. I was right, but only half right. More on that in a bit.
The mailing announced a Jan. 27 workshop on California American Water’s application to modify some of the conservation and rationing rules that affect most of the company’s customers in Monterey County, and to make some changes in the “rate design.”
On the last page I discovered that this means an increase in my water rates. As a somewhat typical water customer in a single-family home, I can expect to see my bill go up by about 40 percent. I should count myself lucky that I don’t live in an apartment because if I did, my bill would be going up about 43 percent.
Why is this happening? Didn’t Cal Am get a rate increase like 20 minutes ago?
I read the whole thing rather thoroughly and couldn’t find anything about improvements to the system or to service, fixing leaky pipes, or solving the water supply problem or saving fish in the Carmel River. None of that frivolous stuff. I didn’t see any talk about the rising cost of taking Public Utility Commissioners to dinner. As far as I can tell from the four-page letter, my bill is likely to go up because Cal Am wants to change the way it calculates bills, the way it applies conservation rates and how it does other things that have no impact on me other than increasing my bill.
Cal Am says, without explanation, that it wants to charge increase “the service charge to recover 30 percent of residential fixed costs, compared to a 15 percent recovery currently.”
Perhaps we should be relieved. What if Cal Am had picked 40 percent or 50 percent instead of 30 percent?
According to the letter, Cal Am also wants to charge me more by collecting money in the future that it should have collected from someone, who knows who, in the past. In other words, someone slipped up and failed to wring every dollar out of us at some point and the company thinks it should be able to remedy that. I have to presume that I was not the person or persons who should have paid more in the past because I am fairly certain that Cal Am has never missed an opportunity to get every possible nickel from me.
This is not a done deal, of course. It is part of an application before the Public Utilities Commission, which, if the past is a good predictor, will likely approve the requested increase and present Cal Am with an award for creativity and accounting prowess. This also is not a full reflection of what is likely to happen to your water bill in the near future. Cal Am rate increases are a lot like El Nino storms. Right behind this one, there’s another one taking shape.
But what of the lucky others whose rates aren’t going up? Those would be the Cal Am customers in the commercial category. They apparently aren’t being affected by most of the changed accounting procedures Cal Am wants to implement but they would be impacted by the effort to collect money that previously uncollected. On account of that, commercial ratepayers can expect to see their bills go down by about 9 percent.
If this is explained in any meaningful way in the letter, it is written in invisible ink.
It is difficult to see why commercial rates are to go down. Based on the information at hand, it could be that Cal Am thinks the uncollected money in past years should have been collected from residential customers and that commercial customers overpaid.
Or it could be that Cal Am just likes commercial customers than it likes the rest of us, or that it is more interested in keeping commercial customers happy.
You may recall that is was just a couple of years ago that Cal Am dramatically cut rates for commercial customers, or at least any commercial customers who were willing to sign a paper certifying that they really into conserving water whenever possible. They did that for various reasons, some of them sound. But I and a few other cynical types suspect that it was part of a deal. Something like this: Back us up on our desalination plans, the rate scheme for the San Clemente Dam removal and on other issues as needed, and we’ll lower your rates, and lower them again at the next opportunity.
Can I prove that? Heck no. In the byzantine world of utility accounting, it becomes ridiculously difficult to prove much of anything.
Now before someone gets all doesn’t-he-understand-that-what’s-good-for-business-is-good-for-everyone on me, I get it, I get it. What I don’t like is that decisions on such things are being made in places where I’m not normally invited and are being reached by people who don’t live anywhere near my neighborhood.
Which takes us to my final point. While there are some good Cal Am watchdogs already – people like George Riley and Ron Weitzman and Charles Cech as well as the fine people at the PUC’S Division of Ratepayer Advocates – I submit that they cannot possibly keep up with the all the rate storms lining up in the Pacific and heading our way.
Cal Am is regulated, and its rated set, by the state Public Utilities Commission, but that body in recent years has been preoccupied with keeping PG&E shareholders happy and overwhelmed by the need to monitor each public utility in this huge state.
Here’s what I think. We need someone in Monterey County, some highly credible person with great accounting skills, to take on the task of analyzing and reporting on all Cal Am rate increase requests and analyzing the company “rate design” and everything else it has or does that impacts our water rates.
Once upon a time, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District had some role in regulating Cal Am. That function has mostly gone away, but it seems entirely reasonable that the district hire someone to perform the function I propose.
Another possibility is the mayors’ water authority. Its primary function is to advance the Cal Am desalination project, the biggest storm of all, and to provide some level of public scrutiny over that venture. Seems to me it would be well equipped to take on the task.
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors could make it work as well if the members really wanted to, though the county wouldn’t be my first choice.
I see this person issuing public reports on Cal Am rate proposals and representing area residents at rate hearings before the PUC. A key function: educating Cal Am customers to the point that we could represent ourselves at rate hearings.
Some of the work would duplicate work already being done by the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. The difference is that the division is responsible for the entire state and must constantly change its focus. This person would have one mission – making whatever Cal Am is up to make sense.
There are those out there doing some of this work now. The George Rileys and Ron Weitzmans. But they cannot keep up with the volume it on their own, without someone able to devote full time to the effort. Rate applications consume hundreds of pages of fine print and tie into previously approved side deals, surcharges and recalculations. Only someone devoting full time to the challenge has any hope of ever understanding all of it.
Expensive? Kind of. What isn’t? an energized and effective person in this role could save Cal Am customers, including businesses and government bodies, more than enough to cover expenses, more than enough many times over.
Right now, Cal Am has us right where it wants us. Divided. Confused. Overwhelmed. The PUC has no motive to fix that and neither does anyone else. We need to create our own seat at the table.
About that workshop, it’s at 2 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. Wednesday Jan. 27 at the Oldemeyer Center, 986 Hilby Ave., Seaside. Presiding over the sessions will be an administrative law judge for the PUC.