SLO water rates to rise again
June 4, 2013
OPINION By RICHARD SCHMIDT
In San Luis Obispo, we know it’s June when the city council votes to increase residential water and sewer fees. This annual ritual is as dependable as the swallows’ return to San Juan Capistrano.
The only thing is this ritual is a broken promise. Years ago, they promised us it wouldn’t be like this, that we’d have three years or so of significant increases, and then price stability. Today, they still talk about price stability, even as they raise rates to the stratosphere.
So, June 12 the council will vote, probably unanimously, to raise water rates for a conservation-practicing household by a whopping 23 percent.
At the same time, under the guise of “rate restructuring,” they’ll lower rates for the most profligate water wasters (think swimming pools, tons of water-guzzling landscape, and other lazy water-wasting ways) by 12 percent.
And they have the chutzpah to call this “water conservation pricing.”
In actuality, this is just one more genuflection by city hall to the city’s 1 percent, the luxury set who sing the council’s praises, and get rewarded for their singing with a sale price on water to support their lifestyle. It’s the city’s usual screw the commoners and transfer favors and money upwards stuff. So much for this being a “progressive” city!
As for water conservation, it’s the usual talk-the-talk not walk-the-walk routine from SLO city hall. “The City of San Luis Obispo wants you to conserve water,” it says on the water department’s web page. I guess that’s why we’re “restructuring” to lower rates for the biggest non-conservers. Why can’t this city just be honest and say it flat out: “We want you to waste water so we can sell more?” Because under their new rates, “sale pricing” for huge users leads to the opposite of conservation.
There are three ways the city’s rate “restructuring” aims to screw good citizens and reward the profligate.
First is an increase in the pricing for the lowest tier of water usage, what’s commonly called the lifeline tier, by about 4 percent, while decreasing the top tier, the profligate user’s top rate, by 16 percent.
Second is eliminating the current three-tier pricing schedule, by which the unit cost of water increases significantly the more one uses. In its place will be a two-tier system that catches almost every household in its top tier. Why this bizarre regressive, anti-conservation move? “A tiered rate structure which escalates pricing as total volume increases is preferable for achieving conservation,” the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury wrote in a 2011 report critical of the current three-tier system. What would they say about a two-tier system in which top tier pricing is reduced?
Third is the imposition, on top of rate increases, of a regressive fixed monthly fee which hits the poor hardest, and would be totally without purpose if true conservation pricing had large users subsidize lifeline usage in return for their water-wasting habits – which is actually how it’s worked till now.
This $60 annual fee, on top of raising the lowest tier pricing, is plain meanness on the city’s part. It is completely unnecessary; till now, all costs were recovered through water rates. Instituting a fixed fee is the opening salvo in transferring water system costs downwards from the 1 percent, and as the fixed fee rises year after year (as it will, regardless of what they promise today), the change in rate systems becomes ever more unfair and regressive.
Water pricing doesn’t have to be so mean and regressive. In a well-run city it wouldn’t be.
A small southern California water provider I’m familiar with has low-key talk about conservation, and a pricing system that produces conservation. Instead of SLO’s two tiers, this provider has five. The lowest is lifeline-priced at $1.50 per 750 gallons (SLO’s new equivalent: $6.56). Prices escalate through the tiers: 33 percent higher for tier 2, 80 percent higher for tier 3, 177 percent for tier 4, and a whopping 243 percent for tier 5. In SLO, under the new rates, the spread between bottom and top tier pricing is a piddling 25 percent.
Further evidence the city really doesn’t care about conservation is the lack of information on water bills. The bills contain no note about the pricing of tiers, and the volume of water one is entitled to from each before prices jump up. The 2011 Grand Jury noted this deficiency, and asked the city to make its bills more informative. The city refused, and thus foregoes the most obvious method of creating conservation consciousness, something PG&E’s known and done for decades.
What shocks one most about SLO’s new and old rates is how this new anti-conservation pricing plays out in monthly bills for smaller and larger users. Water is sold by the “unit,” 100 cubic feet, about 750 gallons. I calculated old and new bills for various levels of usage. For simplicity, I’ve rounded to the dollar.
• For a seriously conserving consumer, using 5 units per month, the bill goes from $31 to $38, about a 21 percent increase.
• For a conserving household using 8 units, the bill goes from $47 to $58, about a 23 percent increase.
• For a non-conserving customer using 25 units, the bill goes from $189 to $192, less than a 2 percent increase.
• For a waterhog using 100 units, the bill decreases from $915 to $807, a whopping $108 less, a 12 percent decrease.
They have the nerve to call this conservation pricing! And to pretend that it’s fair and not regressive!
Another annoying thing about the endless rate increases is the public has no idea where this money goes, but we do know a good bit of it goes for garbage that has nothing to do with providing water – like an annoying publication called “Resource – Managing Community Resources for the Future,” a home for fluff, propaganda, nonsense and outright lies the water fund pays to have prepared by a PR agency, printed in color, and mailed to everyone.
Recently, “Resource” informed us SLO “completed an in-depth study . . . to review the current [water] rate structure and explore any alternative rate structures to ensure that the community’s goals, objectives and expectations were being met.” After this flowery fluff, we’re told: “Changing the water rate structure requires voter approval in accordance with . . . Proposition 218 . . . before final adoption can occur.” That, of course, is a bald-faced lie. There’s no voter approval for water rates under Prop. 218. That measure allows blockage of a rate increase only if a majority of water customers file individual protests. That’s almost impossible even for an organized citizenry to pull off (hats off to the folks in Paso who made it work there).
With an Isla Vista-like 70 percent transient population, SLO city knows a protest will never happen here. But, still, why do we have to pay roughly $25 a year, tacked onto our already-inflated water bills, so the city can lie to us in “resource”?
Increased sewer rates are also on the June 12 council agenda. Here, they’ve already got a regressive “fixed” monthly charge (enacted by a self-proclaimed progressive city council) that goes up every year, plus “volume” charges based on water consumption – charges that are higher for poop water than for a similar volume of pure water! Both charges are slated for increase.
Our high-cost sewage treatment regimen is the tragic result of the city staff’s bull-headed Neanderthal engineering mentality combined with poor decision-making by a city council whose members can’t see beyond accumulating a list of “accomplishment” bragging points for the next election.
Decades ago, when the city was planning its current level of sewage treatment, I was a planning commissioner, and noted the $500,000 annual cost of electricity for the engineers’ preferred treatment method, the 5,000 acre forest needed to offset the carbon released by generating so much electricity, the endless cost increases using so much energy locked us into, and asked why we weren’t going to a less costly, more ecological marsh-based final treatment process instead of a chemical plant approach?
“It can’t be done,” came staff’s answer. I rattled off some places it was being done, including Arcata, whose famous sewage marsh is actually a tourist attraction. “It can’t be done.” Whatever alternative was raised, “It can’t be done” was the response. (Years later, at a planning conference, I accompanied another commissioner to a session on marsh treatment systems, and in the middle of it, she grabbed my arm, and exclaimed: “They lied to us.” Yes, that’s what they do, all the time.)
Now the city is launched on a new round of high-tech energy sucking sewage treatment expansion, again bypassing the now even more proven low tech, lower cost biological alternatives to industrial processing of sewage, and locking future citizens into constantly escalating cost for that treatment.
And so, we lock ourselves into this sad June ritual of endless, inequitable, and now outright regressive water and sewer fee hikes.
If this bugs you, you really should let the city council know. Staff will try to counter everything I’ve said, and whatever you say, with their propaganda and persiflage. But, still, maybe if the council hears from enough of us .
Richard Schmidt is an architect and teacher, and served for 19 years as a volunteer on various city committees and commissions, including eight years on the Planning Commission, terms on the Waterways Planning Board, Environmental Quality Task Force, Election Regulations Committee, and Housing Element Task Force, and is sick about what his city has become in the last decade and a half.