December 4, 2010

"Tis The Save on Your Sewer Bill

We don't have sewer meters in Poway.
Yet, on every bill we get charged a "sewer commodity charge".
Sometimes the sewer fees and sewer commodity charge make up more than half our bills.

Since we do not have sewer meters, how does the city know how much to charge us?

They guess.

The guess is based entirely on a customer's water use during a 2-month period in the wintertime. Water use during the rest of the year doesn't affect your sewer bills at all. To lower your sewer bill, you need to lower consumption during your special 2-month lowest winter water period.

Note: The City of Poway uses an entirely different method to calculate sewer consumption for apartments and condos. This post only refers to sewer fee calculations and hints for single family homes.

The exact methodology the city uses involves averaging the lowest wintertime water use from the last 3 years and then multiplying that average times 85%. So, if your lowest winter water use in the last 3 yrs was 18 units, 10 units and 15 units, the average would be 14.3 units. Multiply that times 85% = 12.2 units. 12.2 units puts a customer just into Tier 3 of sewer billing, which currently costs $76.25 each billing cycle. If this same customer reduced his/her water consumption by just 1 unit during that time, his/her average would drop him/her to Tier 2 which costs just $50.65 each billing period. That's $153.60/yr less, just for reducing water consumption a little bit during a 2-month period in the wintertime.

Lower sewer fees will go into effect in January, but the pricing between the lower tiers is still pretty steep and makes it worthwhile to reduce water consumption for a limited period to get in, or stay in a lower sewer tier.

How do you know when your special 2-month lowest wintertime use is? For almost everyone, it will be in Dec & Jan or Jan & Feb. I get my water bills in Jan/Mar/May/July?Sept/Nov.
My lowest water use is always in the March bill, which covers the 2-month period in January and February. People who get their bills in Feb/April/June/Aug/Oct/Dec will likely find that Dec/Jan is their special 2-month period when it will pay to reduce water consumption.

To determine the exact day the special period starts, you have to know when the meter reader reads your bill. I called the city and gave them the first 3 digits of my account number. They told me what week the meter reader will come, but if I want to know the exact day, I think I will have to employ some of the same strategies I used to keep an eye on my liquor bottle(s) when I had teenagers around. I will need something bigger than a hair laid across the meter cover. Maybe a stick will work, or a piece of tape across the hole in the cover. Barring that, I may just have to count on the whole week being in the conservation period.

Below are some Poway Blog hints for reducing water consumption during the 2-month period:

1. The Garden. Turn off all irrigation. Don't turn it on unless you really need to. Autumn rains have been really helpful so far, but if late December looks like a long dry spell, I will water my landscaping before my 2-month low-water-use period starts. That way, I will be able to coast as long as possible without irrigating. Keep an eye on potted plants. They may need hand watering.

If you are going to plant new plants or a new lawn area, wait until after your 2-month period is over. Then you will be able to keep them watered in a dry spell.

2. Don't change your pool water. At lot of my water-wise hints are really about timing. If you need to empty and fill the pool, do it before or after your 2-month low winter-water use period.

3. Showers. Take shorter showers or less frequent showers. Shower at the club, school, wherever else you can. Promise your teenager that if they take short, quick showers during this 2-month period, you won't nag them about long showers for the rest of the year. Those long showers might cost a buck or two more here or there, but getting bumped up from tier 2 to tier 3 costs $150 more per yr for the next 3 yrs. in sewer fees.

4. Laundry. Don't change the sheets as often. Let the laundry pile up at the end of the 2-month low winter water period until your meter has been read.

5. Recycle. I'm not a big fan of carrying water out of the bathroom in buckets to use in the yard. Maybe it is because I don't have an enormous amount of room in the bathroom to share with a bunch of buckets and pails. Large buckets of water can also be deadly with small children around. But I will stick an empty trash can under a gutter leak. If it rains a lot, the can will swell and look like it is going to explode, so I transfer some of the water into some empty containers. I'm not going to leave water stagnating for months to attract mosquitos, but for a short period, I will save it for use elsewhere in the yard, especially for potted plants.

6. Kitchen. Throw potato peelings and other kitchen food waste into the trash instead of running the disposal. Yeah, it fills up the landfills sooner, but guess what they do with all the green waste that is collected? They throw it on top of the other trash in the landfill. Kitchen scraps will decompose just as readily as green waste, so if nobody is worried about the green waste, they better not cry about kitchen scraps in the garbage.

7. Vacations. Plan your vacation so you will be out-of-town during this 2-mo period. And be sure to take a shower that last morning in a hotel or at a friend's house.

Try to get relatives to come to visit at another time. Ha! Ha! We actually don't do this ourselves. We seem to have company at this time every year, so I do the best I can to get the sheets and linens washed and ready to put up before the 2-month period. One or two showers by our guest won't throw us off that much.

These are our favorite strategies for keeping our water use low during the sewer calculation period. What strategies do you use?

December 2, 2010

We'll Play on Your Grass But We Won't Sleep in Your Hotels

In my last post, I talked about the years we spent coaching a youth soccer team. Our team was a "recreational" team. All of our players lived in Poway. All of our games were in Poway until the kids got older. When the kids got older, they played against teams from nearby cities, but all of the kids on the Poway teams were from Poway . Our season was from August 'til early December. We could sign up for tournaments during Thanksgiving break or after the regular season. We did that once or twice.

Some Poway parents wanted a more competitive experience for their kids. They formed a club called the "Vaqueros", which became the competitive branch of the Poway Youth Soccer League (PYSL). Back then, there were only a few teams. Today, the Vaqueros have over 25 teams of youth players. The Vaqueros teams are further subdivided into green teams and white teams, the green teams being the more skilled. The teams have professional, paid coaches. Here is what the Vaqueros website says about the green teams:
Green Teams: Green teams are comprised of the top talent in each of the specific age groups. A professionally trained and licensed coach is assigned to the team to provide education and training at the highest level and must meet certain requirements relating to their soccer background. Green team players are selected based on their desire to commit to the team for an entire season, which could be anywhere from 7 to 10 months, and will involve participation in local, and out of town tournaments, including regional and state competitions. Participation on a Green team is a serious physical, emotional, and financial commitment.

The white teams also have professional coaches and play for a "7 month season". The hope is that their skills will improve enough to make it on to a green team. Many of the kids who play on the green and white Vaqueros teams are not local Poway kids. They are kids from nearby communities who want (or whose parents want them) to have some serious soccer training. The intensity of this training means that these kids spend a lot of time on the soccer field, and a lot of soccer fields are necessary to meet the needs of the kids who are accepted into the Vaquero program.

Poway's General Plan was written back in the days when we had a recreational youth soccer club in town, where Poway players played for a 4 month season against other Poway players. The General Plan doesn't provide for enough park space for a semi-professional sports league that trains kids from a regional area almost year round. Poway Youth Soccer League (PYSL) is well organized and has used their organizational ability to pressure the Poway City Council to light several fields, including Arbolitos, to accommodate their interests. Lighting Arbolitos has hit a snag because the people who bought homes overlooking what was originally designated open space weren't too happy about having the sports fields there. And they are even madder now that the city has reneged on their promise to never light the fields. One resident, Peter De Hoff, filed a suit against the city. De Hoff claims that the city did not follow the correct procedure in making the decision to light the fields. What? We pay our city manager and staff top dollar and they don't bother to follow some basic legal procedures?

I'm gonna leave it up to the court to tell the city whether they needed to do a biological study before they made the decision to light the fields, although that one seems like a "no-brainer," as a certain member of our council is fond of saying. I want to focus on a different aspect of the Arbolitos lighting controversy.

In an Oct 21, 2010 letter to the editor in the Poway News Chieftain, Laura Van Tyne contends that Poway neighborhoods should give up their parks and open space for a sports business that caters to out-of-towners because it helps the Poway economy.
The PYSL has less than 1,400 members. It’s true that there are a number of non-Poway players. However,I would like to point out that most attend PUSD schools.

When parents drop off their child at practice many spend the hour shopping, doing errands, and then eating in restaurants within the city of Poway. This generates revenue for our local businesses that would otherwise go to businesses out of Poway.

I don't think this argument has any merits. First of all, what does it matter if the non-Poway kids are from PUSD? Their parents aren't paying for the upkeep of our parks if they don't live in Poway. Second, let me note that these lighted sports field are not located in north Poway neighborhoods. If you are a regular reader of Poway Blog, you might notice one of my recurring memes: land use in north Poway is for quality of life; in south Poway, it is for revenue generation. I take offense to the idea that south Poway should give up their open space and parks to kids from north Poway and non-Poway communities because their parents might shop in Poway and produce revenue for the city while doing so.

Outsiders shouldn't own our parks on the pretense that they will shop in our stores. I don't even believe that they shop in our stores. Most of north Poway doesn't even shop in Poway. And you want me to believe that these soccer moms and dads are shopping in Poway and not heading off to Carmel Mtn Ranch or RB after they drop off the kids?

I have evidence that the Poway Youth Soccer Club doesn't even think about promoting Poway businesses. Last weekend, the Poway Youth Soccer Club hosted a tournament called "Poway Country Shootout". Teams had to pay $300- $350 to play in the tournament. All of the games were played at Arbolitos, Meadowbrook and Valley School fields, fields in south Poway where the City of Poway has spent millions of dollars to install artificial turf, lights and/or to maintain the fields. Although most of the teams that entered the tournament were from nearby communities, out-of-the-area teams were invited too. On their web page, the Poway Youth Soccer League suggested that these teams stay at hotels in Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch. Not a single one of the three Poway hotels was on their list, even though they were closer to the sports fields where the tournament was held.

Shop Poway? Naahhhh, not PYSL.

November 10, 2010

What's A Park For?

Part 1: Our Soccer Years

Note: This is the first part of a 3-part series.

Before we moved to Poway in 1976, our family lived in an apartment in San Diego. The only "open space" in the apartment complex was a communal concrete patio. Fortunately, we lived within walking distance of a park, and biking distance of the bay and ocean. On weekends, we enjoyed visiting the zoo, museums and the aquarium. We missed those amenities when we moved to Poway, but we loved our quiet neighborhood and all of the open space.

Our house was a brand new house. The yard was bare dirt. During our first year, we spent an enormous amount of time planting a few trees and a garden and a lawn so our kids would have somewhere to play. We also built a "play structure" in the backyard to entertain the kids. Our friendly mailman, Kent Miller, told us about the Poway Soccer Club. My husband and I signed up our 5 yr. old son and soon found ourselves coaching his team, the Spirits. For the next 14 yrs., our life from August through early December revolved around soccer. Twice a week practice, Saturday games.

Saturday Morning, circa 1977
Big brother in his soccer gear.
Little sister with a bag of "goodies" to keep her entertained.

Mostly we practiced at Valley School. The playground was lined by huge shade trees that are gone now. We would warm-up in their cool canopy and hope a breeze would kick up before we started drills. As the kids got older, the practice field got more crowded. There were more kids playing. And lots of them were younger kids who might get hurt if one of my players let loose with a full strength kick. So we moved our practices to a field at Meadowbrook School.

The Meadwbrook field was in terrible shape. There were divits and gopher holes everywhere. But it had one big attraction. The only other team practicing there on the same days we were, was a girls team. Of about the same age.

It became our "tradition" to scrimmage the girls on rainy days, instead of calling off practice. The boys would phone me to make sure I extended an invitation to the girls, and they would never forget to remind me to ask the girls to wear white T-shirts. You know, so we didn't have to do "shirts and skins". Uh, right.....

Rainy Tournament, 1985
Were we crazy or what?

The first time my boys team scrimmaged the girls I was worried that someone might get hurt. The girls were just as quick and wily, but the guys could really slam that ball pretty hard. And they could take each other down pretty aggressively. My worries were unnecessary. Without any instruction from me, the boys all took some edge off their game. The only slide tackling was done by the girls. This afforded the girls a much better opportunity to improve their game than it did for my guys, but it never seemed to diminish the guys hopes that it would rain on our practice days.

Championship Tournament, 1989
We silkscreened and airbrushed our own "away" shirt
We thought it was s-o-o-o cool.
The referee was not impressed.

A couple of times we managed to get the opportunity to play in the sports arena during halftime of a Sockers game. One time, the boys decided to invite the girl's team as their opponents. After a few minutes of play, everyone realized something was off. So, they juggled the teams. Half the boys switched to the girls team and half the girls came over to our side. Both sides figured out their own substitutions. The coaches and the referee had nothing to do but chat with each other. The kids had a ball. Literally and figuratively. We all went out to pizza afterwards. I was so proud of them. My boys (and I think the girls team also) were quite skilled and had won their division from time to time. We played hard and well and won more than our share of the games. Yet, as a youth coach, I had no illusion that my role was to prepare these kids to be professional soccer players. One of my goals for my team was that the players would have a lifelong love for the game and be able to play with people of different skill levels and genders on a recreational level. I felt like I accomplished that.

The Spirits, 1989

From time to time, my husband and I run into one of the boys we coached. Most of them are almost 40 yrs old now and have kids of their own. They tell us that they have fond memories of those years. We do too. There were a few sad moments too, like the time nobody came to pick up one of the players after practice and we had to drive him to a bar on Poway Rd. to find his mother. But for the most part, coaching was a lot of work and a lot of fun.

It's been almost 20 yrs since we last coached a soccer game. Today, more kids are playing soccer. And they aren't just playing during the August- Dec season like we did. Lots of them are playing year round. In addition to the recreational teams, the Poway Soccer Club has several diffrent levels of competitive teams. Our boys team played in the competitive circuit because they had won their recreational division. But in those days we did not have paid professional coaches, as the kids do today. The competitive teams are looking for the very best players, so kids who live outside of Poway also try out for and become players on those teams. There weren't enough practice fields when we played and there certainly aren't enough now that playing soccer has become practically a full time occupation for some kids and with the number of kids from outside of Poway who are playing on Poway teams.

The number of kids playing baseball and softball has also grown, not to mention that there are newer sports leagues in town: rugby and lacrosse. It all adds up to a lot of needed fields.

They start them pretty young nowadays.
Diaper changes at half time?

Poway has also changed too. In the last 20 yrs., almost all of the new housing has been what I would refer to as housing extremes: McMansions in the north or low income, subsidized "affordable" apartments in south Poway.

Many of the McMansions have ample space on their lot for their own personal park. Heck, some people have enough room for their own personal ball field on their lot. And there is so much land up there, that the neighbors can barely see it. How cool is that?

People who live in the affordable apartments of South Poway don't have a backyard of their own. The common grounds areas are small and don't provide much of a place to play. If the kids kick or throw a ball on the grounds, their family can be kicked out. Their families need to go to public, communal parks in order for the kids to let off some steam. The also need public park space for all the other things that people use a backyard for: birthday parties, picnics, family gatherings, neighborhood shindigs and just to hang out in the fresh air.

Kids in apartment houses aren't the only ones who need parks. People who live in trailers and small lots have a need for a public park in lieu of having a backyard or a children's play area of their own. And even people in McMansions can appreciate having public parks for "play dates" and for neighborhood interaction.

There is not enough park space in Poway to serve the needs of the sports community and there are not enough parks to fill the needs of the people who do not have a big backyard, or maybe even any backyard. Our community leaders, most of whom live on very large lots themselves, haven't really planned for enough park space. In the next decade, Poway will still be required to build apartment houses because Poway has opted to form a redevelopment agency. Where will the kids play? Where will the families hang out on a summer's evening? Even if the sports teams light every single practice field in every single neighborhood park, there still will not be enough park space for the sports teams and there will be no space for the people who do not have a backyard of their own.

One of the biggest mistakes our leaders made was not to require the developers of Old Coach Estates to build a large public park. In fact, the Old Coach developers didn't even have to pay the required "in lieu" fees instead of providing a park. Don Higginson suggested that they provide a few public tee times instead as their contribution to the recreation needs of the community, and the rest of the council agreed. Those tee times serve the needs of only a few privileged people and leave the rest of the community wanting. We need leaders who have the best interest of the whole community at heart.

Ginger Couvrette is the Poway Youth Soccer League program administrator. I've never met her. I am sure she is a very fine person and spends a lot of time trying to provide sports opportunities for kids in the area. Ms. Couvrette is on the City of Poway Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. She advocates for more playing fields. Every year, the city formally assesses how much field space the sports teams need, and Ms. Couvrette assists with that. Mrs. Couvrette speaks for the sports community.

Ms Couvrette probably has little need of a park, other than for sports use. The front of her house faces a golf course. The back of her house also faces open space. Her backyard is ample enough for family gatherings and kid's activities. She certainly doesn't represent everyone in this community on the Parks and Rec council. Who does represents the apartment dwellers? Who assesses their needs? Anybody? Whose idea was it to give voice to the sports community and no voice at all to other park users? And whose idea was it to make these two groups fight it out with each other? And why do the sports people always want to take over neighborhood parks and open space in south Poway to meet their needs? We are the ones who most need our own open space and neighborhood parks for other purposes.

Daddy and Baby Hanging Out Together at Mission Bay Park, 1972

I've lived in an apartment and I've been an enthusiastic youth team coach. I can sympathize with both groups. We shouldn't be pitted one against the other. The park space conflict in Poway is the result of terrible planning. And some misguided city policies. If there are any solutions to our park problems, it won't be found by dressing up the kiddos in their soccer shirts and having them scream at council meetings. People are going to have to actually listen to each other and work together to pressure our community's leaders to work for both sports groups and non-sports park users.

In part 2 of this series, I hope to illustrate some of the ongoing pain-in-the-ass adventures our neighborhood has endured trying to keep Starridge Park a neighborhood park and not allow it to be turned into a sports park. In part 3, I plan to review the city's general plan, and some of the ordinances and policies that pertain to parks and show what a discordant mess they are. If you are along for the ride, don't feel shy about speaking up and added your comments to the dialogue.

October 29, 2010

Strange Bedfellows

Bruce Tarzy is supporting John Mullin, Don Higginson, and Carl Kruse for Poway City Council.

Who'd of thunk it?

Tarzy, Mullin, Higginson and Kruse go way back in Poway politics. Tarzy was elected to the first council 30 yrs ago. Kruse was appointed 2 yrs later to fill the term of Clyde Rexrode, who died the day before he was re-elected. Mullin served on a committtee to advise the council whether Poway should form a redevelopment agency in 1983, and was chairman of the first official Redevelopment Advisory Committee in 1985. Higginson's was first elected nearly a quarter of a century ago. Their voices are not new voices in Poway politics. What is new is seeing old political foes regroup.

It is no surprise that Tarzy is supporting his longtime friend, Carl Kruse. They both served as officers of the Green Valley Civic Association (GVCA) and they even vacation together. Some people have said that Carl Kruse is Bruce Tarzy's personal council member.

It is surprising that Tarzy is supporting Higginson and Mullin. Back in the mid-1980s, one of the chief political issues was how Poway should grow. Tarzy (and Kruse) were on the side of slow, controlled growth. Mullin and Higginson were pushing for more development. In 1988, the 2 sides lined up behind competing ballot propositions, Prop FF (slow growth) and Prop GG (the developer's alternative). Prop FF was sponsored by a group called "Poway Citizens for Limited Growth". Bruce Tarzy, Jerry Hargarten and Bob Emery were key architects of Prop FF. The competing proposition, Prop GG, the "quality of life initiative" was written by council member Linda Brannon. Higginson and Mullin favored Prop GG.

Before I get into the Prop FF-GG contest, I want to paint a little picture of what Poway was like in those days. There was no industrial park in the hills of south Poway. There was no Old Coach development or Maderas gold course. Scripps Poway Parkway, known as "alternate this" or "alternate that", was only a pencil mark on a map. The houses in the Arbolitos development were just starting to show up on the horizon. A brand spanking new shopping center, anchored by a Target store just opened. There was no Wal-Mart. Our original "town center", Creekside, was a grazing area for cows. There was nothing between the Poway city limits and the freeway except open space.

When Poway incorporated in 1980, one of the first things the council did was to impose a building moratorium until a new development plan was approved. The first council was dedicated to keeping Poway rural and controlling growth.

In the 1986 election, Don Higginson and Linda Brannon defeated Linda Oravec and Mary Shepardson, two of the original Poway councilmembers. This was the only election that any incumbent Poway council member ever lost. The moment marked a major shift in Poway politics. Higginson and Brannon were both considered "pro-growth" in a community that had incorporated, largely to control their own growth.

In the 1988 election, Bruce Tarzy (who had decided not to run for re-election) and Bob Emery (who was running for re-election) teamed up to write and support a proposition that was later named Prop FF on the ballot. Tarzy and Emery hoped to prevent future councils, ones with the likes of, ummm, say a Brannon or Higginson, from being able to ruin their vision of what Poway should look like.

As a competing measure, Brannon wrote Prop GG, the "quality of life" initiative, the kind of thing developers love. Higginson and Mullin supported Prop GG.

Prop GG qualified for the ballot after paid signature gatherers obtained the necessary number of signatures. The council passed resolution 88-085 on August 2, 1988, thereby putting Prop FF on the ballot.

A few days before the election, a group of five Poway residents delivered a letter to City of Poway special counsel complaining about some campaign hanky panky between Bob Emery's election committee and Poway Citizens for Limited Growth, the committee that was formed to get Prop FF passed by the voters. Specifically, the group claimed that Bob Emery's campaign committee was controlling the Prop FF committee (Poway Citizens for Limited Growth) and that they were sharing campaign expenses.

(The Tribune. San Diego, Calif.: Nov 3, 1988. pg. B.8)

The seven-page letter contends that Emery's committee controls the FF committee and has violated Poway's campaign-finance laws by collecting contributions above the $100 amount allowed for controlled committees.


The complaint given to Knoepp contends that Poway Citizens for Limited Growth became a "controlled committee" Sept. 24, when two airplane banners touting Emery and Proposition FF flew over Poway during the city's Poway Days celebration.


The difference in the shared cost indicates that the Emery committee controls the Proposition FF committee's financing, the five said.

When a committee is considered "controlled," under Poway's campaign ordinance, a contributor can give no more than $100 to each campaign.

According to campaign disclosure statements filed with the Poway city clerk, nine contributors have given $100 or more to the Emery re-election committee and $100 or more to the committee for Proposition FF, which would require voter approval to increase density in rural residential areas. Three people, including Councilman Bruce Tarzy, have given the $100 maximum to Emery and $500 or more to Poway Citizens for Limited Growth.

Hmmmm. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It is a classic campaign maneuver. Just before the election, one or several of a candidate's supporters file a letter of complaint against their candidate's opponent. The complaints get some press, and it goes to a special counsel who holds off on looking at the complaint until after the election and then he/she dismisses it.

One of the 5 people who signed the letter of complaint against Emery and the Prop FF committee was John Mullin. Mullin's complaints against Emery and the Prop FF committee were found to be without merit. But for the record, special counsels appointed to oversee election complaints generally dismiss all of the complaints. Serious complainers must file a signed grievance with the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). During that same 1988 election, somebody did send a couple of complaints to the FPPC that resulted in stipulations and fines. One was against Emery's opponent, Larry Valente and the other was against developer Kuebler. Valente was fined $1500 for sending a late campaign mailer titled "The Republican Update"which did not identify Valente's committee as the true source of the piece. Richard Kuebler, a Poway developer, was fined for $17,500 for not disclosing campaign donations in Escondido and for failing to identify himself as the source of two "hit piece" mailers against Bob Emery.

Prop FF beat Prop GG 2-1 in the election. The rest is history.

Fast forward to 2010. Why is a slow growth guy like Tarzy supporting his old pro-development enemy, John Mullin? Mullin has made no secret that he wants to make development easier in Poway. He has proposed a "streamlining process" as a first step. The streamlining will allow staff to approve projects that now require public notice and council approval.

John Mullin is also a member of CALPASC, (California Professional Association of Specialty Contractors). In fact, Mullin is on Government Affairs Committee of CALPASC. When Poway Patch's Margie Palmer queried Mullin about his involvement in this group, Mullin didn't see the inherent conflict of interest.

"My being a member of Cal-PAC is no different than me being a member of the Chamber of Commerce," Mullin said. "It's a trade association. And people who continue to propose that having some sort of significance with regard to my role on the council are incorrect."

Uhmmm, no. CALPASC is not simply a trade association like the local Chamber of Commerce. Now if Mullin was referring to the US Chamber which spend buckets of money, some of it from foreign entities, to influence legislation in the US that is advantageous for businessfolk and disadvantageous for workers, well he may have a point. While the local Poway Chamber does advocate for their members, they don't bring it to the level that CALPASC does. Check out their CALPASC's webpage. They have paid lobbyists who help write and push for certain legislation, de-regulation and judicial remedies. Our local chamber is doing street fairs, not filing "amicus briefs" in court on behalf of contractors.

According to Cal-Access, the California Secretary of State's database, CALPASC has hired 2 firms to lobby for them: Government Strategies, Inc, (2003-2009) and California Strategies & Advocacy, LLC (2009-2010). CALPASC spent just under $300,000 lobbying in 2007-2008 and have reported over $73,000 spent so far in 2009-2010.

It is pretty unethical to be on a legislative body, even a local legislative body and to belong to a group that is lobbying for legislative remedies at the same time.

So why is Bruce Tarzy supporting John Mullin for council? I've got a theory, but I'll save that for a future blog. What's your theory?

October 13, 2010

John Mullin's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea*

Mina De Oro Gate
It's already started.

John Mullin, who replaced Betty Rexford in the June, 2010 recall election, is a man on a mission and he isn't wasting any time. Mullin is a developer and a developer's best friend. His goal is to grease the skids for developers, so they can do what they want without any governmental body telling them they have to do it this way or that way.

In the agenda for the October 19, 2010 Poway City Council meeting, there is a memorandum initiated by Councilmember Mullin proposing a "streamlining process." Mullin is proposing that city staff be given the authority to approve certain decisions that currently require council approval. Yes, this would speed the approval process for a development project, but it is a really terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* idea for several reasons.

First, many of the Poway city staff are "at will" employees. They can be hired or fired "at will." So, when a project proposed by an influential friend of a council member or city boffo comes up, there can be a lot of pressure on the staff. Are they gonna go with strict compliance to the rules or do they want to keep their job?

Second, these issues can and do cause a lot of neighborhood conflict, ill will and court suits. Not to mention staff turnover. Decisions that are not made through a public process are easily perceived to be (and often are) biased. Council members or other high level city staff will be tempted to throw their weight around to benefit their friends without the public being aware.

You think it doesn't happen?

Have you forgotten the recall stories? Remember that fire truck story? Supposedly, Betty Rexford got her own fire truck while someone else's house burned down. If that was true, (and I didn't see any proof that it was) then the fire department was easily coerced into providing a favor to a councilmember who wasn't even all that powerful. Poway has refused to clear the air about this incident, or to publicly address whether the incident did or did not take place or to discuss what steps to take to prevent something like that from happening in the future.

The trigger for the Rexford recall was a court suit filed by Rexford's neighbors. The neighbors
claimed that Rexford used city staff to harass them and interfere with their building projects.
Rexford claims she didn't. The city settled out-of-court. Several of the planners that were involved in the case are no longer working for the city. Mullin wants to put more pressure on the staff to make decisions without public notice or council oversight. That's a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* idea.

While I have immense sympathy for the first time remodeler (I've been there) or someone who has great business plans but is totally confounded by the rules and regulations of getting set up in Poway, I have no soft spots in my heart for developers. I am sure that there are some ethical ones, but more often than not, they use every sneaky trick in the book to get around the rules.

Consider our former mayor, who was a developer. He bought a piece of property that was real cheap because it had some environmental constraints on it. It had protected vernal pools on it. Someone from his company managed to get a City of San Diego staff person to give them a grading permit one day and Cafagna destroyed those vernal pools.
In December 1999, owners of a protected vernal pool site off Arjons Drive, north of downtown San Diego in Mira Mesa, bulldozed a significant portion of the parcel, scrapping off native vegetation and filling in fragile pool basins. Destruction of a protected vernal pool site is a violation of state and federal Endangered Species Acts and would ordinarily be a clear signal for prosecution. However, in this situation, the City of San Diego issued a grading permit without first checking their files and completing a proper investigation. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game coauthored a letter informing the city it violated state and federal regulations in addition to San Diego’s own municipal code for issuing permits. The pools were protected in the 1980’s by an agreement approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service with the land’s former owner and that information was communicated during the sale via a signed letter from both real estate brokers involved. Responsible parties claimed ignorance and Michael Cafagna, co-owner of the property, denied any wrongdoing. In late 2002, San Diego County prosecutors quietly dropped the case.

This is the "oopsie" method of getting around the rules. "Oops, did I just grade vernal pools? Oh, sorry, but since they are all wrecked, can I have a building permit?" Cafagna didn't get his building permit that time, but the "oops" trick has been quite successful in Poway.

Whether it is building a garage in the front setback (because it doesn't otherwise fit) and then declaring that someone "mis-measured" and it would be too expensive to rip it down or chopping down heritage trees early one morning on a weekend when code compliance officiers were not available, well, it is all good in Poway. And Mullin wants to make it even better.

In 1993, Bruce Tabb, developer of Old Coach, was ticked off because he thought the Old Coach property was identified as "high quality vegetation" on Sandag maps. With Councilmember Higginson in his office, Tabb called up Poway city planner, Jim Nessel, and "lambasted" him for "not acting in his best interest or appropriately representing him as a property owner in Poway." Tabb even put Higginson on the phone (quasi-judiciality not concerning him here?) to pressure the staff member.

Nessel was POd enough about the experience to write a memo to City Manager Bowersox. A little note at the end also suggested that Tabb had cleared his property 3 times, but staff had only been aware of 2 clearings. Likely he was not permitted for the third clearing.

Higginson and Tabb Harass Staff

Sometimes developers employ sneaky tricks themselves; other times, they hire someone to do it for them. Someone like John Fitch, the former asst city manager, who left that job under not-so-favorable circumstances. After his employment with the city ended, Fitch represented several clients from time-to-time in their bids to get the council to bend the rules in their favor. In 2004, John Fitch represented some property owners living on Eucalyptus Heights Rd and Mina de Oro Rd. who wanted the city to allow them to build a gate across Mina de Oro Rd. They cited security and trash problems as the reason for wanting the gate, although data from the sherif's department did not substantiate that any problem existed.

One of the property owners on Mina de Oro , Menachem Shoval, did not want the gate. He complained that his neighbors had sometimes blocked the road with rocks and debris to prevent him and his guest from reaching his property. Also disputed was whether or not Mina de Oro was a public or private road, even though the city had designated the road as access to the public trail system. On Jan 18, 2005, the council voted on the gate request. Councilmembers Rexford and Boyack voted in favor of the gate, Higginson, Emery and Cafagna were opposed. Fitch was persistent and got the matter brought back before the council on March 22, 2005. This time the gate was unanimously approved.

The Shovals were not happy. They sued and won their case in Superior Court in 2007. In her tentative ruling against the City of Poway, the Judge Lewis ruled that Mina de Oro was a public road and that (bold added for emphasis)
the Court believes the City's approval of the resolution was arbitrary, capricious, and entirely lacking in evidentiary support. Moreover, even if this were a CCP 1094.5, et. seq., writ petition, the Court finds that in the absence of any findings concerning the public nature of the road or the effect of its gating on the public, there is a lack of substantial evidence to support the City's passage of the Resolution.
The city was required to rescind approval of the gate. But first, they considered a work-around of the decree. They considered vacating the road, thereby making it a private road. And the City refused to cite neighbors who were still obstructing the road so that the Shovals could not reach their property.

A little gift from the neighbors blocking access to the Shoval property

The Mina de Oro gate fiasco was not a staff decision, it was approved by the entire council in public session. Imagine what will happen if a staff member is allowed to make such decisions without any public vetting. My next example will do that, and one of the special features is that some of the very same characters that were involved in the Shoval gate case pop up in the Victorian switcheroo.

When the L family moved into their Old Poway home, most of the windows faced a small, vacant lot. The lot was "substandard" under the city's code and general plan, so it was difficult to build on that lot. The lot was once part of a adjacent parcel that had a small house on it. The owner of the small house still owned both parcels and wanted to build a larger house on her lot. She met resistance at the city and gave up. She sold her lot for $50,000 to a Harry Rogers in 2004. Four months later Harry Rogers sold the parcel to his neighbor Dennis Keena for $200,000. Rogers and Keena both lived on Mina de Oro- they were 2 of the people who asked the city to give them a permit for the gate across the road. John Fitch is going to be in this story too. Fitch represented Keena in his request for a variance so that he could build a house on the substandard lot. He needed a variance because the house he had planned was going to spill over into the front, rear and side yard setbacks. Keena would sell the lot for a cool $300,000 after his buddy John Fitch got the variance.

Mrs L reviewed the city documents for the proposed house. She knew the house was going to be much closer to her house than what the city codes allowed. What she didn't know, was that John Fitch was going to ask the council to give his client a "variance envelope" so that they could come back later and substitute a different house with only staff approval, if the house fit within the "variance envelope" for the first house.

The documents that Mrs. L reviewed at the city showed plans for this house - a 2,172 sq ft house with attached 655 sq ft garage:

Imagine her surprise when they started building this house- a 2,850 sq ft house with attached 566 sq ft garage- next door to her:

The Poway code requires an applicant to return to the council for a 2nd approval if they decide to change the design of a proposed project. John Fitch got around that by requesting and receiving approval for a "variance envelope" with approval by a staff member for changes if the changes fit in the variance envelope. The planned switcheroo took place, and a Poway staff member approved the Victorian instead of the first house. Without any oversight, there was nobody who carefully checked to see if the Victorian did indeed fit into the variance envelope. It didn't. When Mrs L complained, the city issued a stop work order. A new variance was needed before work could resume.

Mrs L, Joe St Lucas from SPRA and I met with city manager Rod Gould and city planner Patti Brindle on the Friday before the new "oops" variance would go before the council for approval. Gould profusely apologized to Mrs L for the many staff mistakes. He reminded me of those CEOs telling folks how sorry they were that their faulty tires killed so many people. It was a good act, but I don't think he was sincere because of what happened next. When we asked Gould what the staff recommendation would be for the new variance, he said he would recommend approval. He didn't want the homebuilder to have to incur a lot of additional costs because of all the mistakes. Then Gould said something which stunned me. He said that there would only be 3 council members at the meeting, and the variance would only need 2 votes for approval. He was wrong. I told him he was wrong and he later confirmed with me that he would indeed need 3 votes. What kind of jerk would admit that his staff made mistakes, lots of mistakes and then not give the aggrieved party a fair hearing? Or a least pretend to give the aggrieved party a fair hearing? This was my first meeting with Gould, and I left that meeting with a really bad impression of what kind of person he was.

During the remainder of our meeting, I argued with planner Patti Brindle over her various interpretations of the city code. For example, the code explicitly states how far a porch can protrude into a setback. Ms Brindle insisted that the porch which wrapped on 3 sides of the Victorian house was a patio cover that was "open on three sides" and not a porch. I am not an architect or city planner, but I know the difference between a porch and a patio cover and I was really peeved to see how vociferously she insisted on her screwy interpretation. Mullin wants the staff to be allowed to approve things like this without anyone else getting a peek at what they are doing.

In the end, Brindle amended the variance request again to cover the porch. And the council dutifully approved the oops variance. The total variances given to the project were 13 ft into the front yard setback, 1.5 ft and 6.75 ft into the side yard setbacks, and a whopping 29 feet into the backyard setback. The Victorian house pictured above was built almost 30 feet closer to Mrs L's house than is allowed by our Poway code.

Letting the staff approve projects like this leads to many intentional and unintentional errors. And a lot of anger and tension between prospective neighbors. The city is also at risk for additional court cases. It is a really terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* idea. No doubt John Mullin's supporters are in favor of it. I got a piece of campaign literature from him the other day. It was no surprise to see that John Fitch and his buddies had endorsed John Mullin, the developer's best friend.

* My apologies to Judith Viorst for stealing part of the title of her book, " Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

September 16, 2010


Protest Poway Sewer/ Water Rates

I have been on a mission for the last 18 months or so, trying to get the city to change the sewer
fees to a uniform unit rate. Currently, the sewer fees are structured so that those who use the
least pay the most. The sewer fee structure also has these screwy irregularities in it that could
result in a single drink of watercosting a customer $150 more over the next year.

Every one of the current council members has been deaf to my pleas. So I found it very
interesting to watch GVCA leaders and the large lot owners hyperventilating one summer
evening in the council chambers, proclaiming that it wasn't fair that the folks who used the
most water would have to pay more for it. They even said it was illegal, because if some people
were paying more for water, then they were "subsidizing" the people who were paying less per
unit. Now you have to remember that some of these folks were getting a "discount" on their
large volume water purchases just a year or two ago.

Hmmm, when they get cheaper rates, it isn't illegal or a "subsidy," it's a "discount."

Nevertheless, with their shrill sense of unfairness and injustice, I figured that at least a few of
them would want to join my efforts for uniform sewer rates. I figured wrong. The GVCA has not
asked the council to do diddly about the sewer rates. They are not interested in fairness or
justice; they are only interested in their own advantage.

There was a letter to the editor in this week's Poway News Chieftain. A certain Sylvia Ginsberg
responded to Marijo Van Dyke's previous letter complaining about the city abandoning
conservation water rates at the request of the GVCA.
A homeowner with a larger family or lot uses more water no matter how much they conserve. The five- tier system is unfair and a detriment to the conservation efforts. Tier 1 doesn’t even cover what Poway pays to buy the water. Apartment dwellers and businesses are charged the Tier 1 rate, no matter how much water they use. Homeowners are billed according to the five-tier system: if you use 15 units or less you’re billed at Tier 1 — once again, less than the cost of the water. How does this encourage conservation?
The five-tier system not only penalizes high water usage, but also subsidizes Tier 1 users. Are you charged a higher price for gas because of the vehicle you drive and the gas mileage it gets? Same thing here.
Ms Ginsberg seems to be really worried that she might be paying more for water than an
apartment dweller or a businessman. What if the shoe was on the other foot? Would she want
it changed? Probably not. Oh wait! The shoe is on the other foot. Ms. Ginsberg is wrong.
Apartments, condos and businesses were never, ever in tier 1. The tiers were only for single
family ratepayers. Condos, apartments and businesses all were assigned a rate equal to the rate
in Tier 3. The new rates, which will kick in in January, will be $4.10 per unit of water for condo,
apartment and business users. For the water gluttons in north Poway? They will be
charged $4.02 for their first 199 units of water.

OMG!!!!!! The water hogs are being subsidized.

And it isn't just their water rates. Large lot owners have the lowest sewer rates in town.
For using 50 units of winter water, they will be charged less than $2.00 a unit, which is less than it
costs to have that sewage processed at Pt Loma. Single family homeowners who use 12 units
will pay $3.67/unit. Condo owners, apartment dwellers and businesses will pay $3.40/unit.

OMG!!!!!! They are really, really being subsidized.

And, by the way, when you buy gas, you pay a tax proportional to the total amount of gas you
buy. Buy water in Poway and you pay a tax called a "fixed fee". But it isn't proportional. The
same fee is charged to the person buying 15 units as to the person buying 200 units. How is that

What can we do?
1. Click on the fullscreen link above the letter to make it larger. Print it, fill it in and mail it to
the city.Email a link to this blog to your friends so they can protest too.

2. Do not vote for any of the incumbents in the next election. If we don't elect some other
people, we will get stuck paying subsidies to the large lot people from the GVCA forever.

August 25, 2010

In Defense of Tiered Water Rates

Last month I attended the water/sewer rates workshop. (You can read my initial reaction here.) Poway is now in the process of revising their tiered water rates to a simple 2-tier system for single family home water customers. Everyone who uses 0-199 units of water will pay $4.08/unit and folks who use 200+ units will pay $5.74/ per unit for any units over 199 units. So, for all practical purposes, Poway will have a flat rate for water, with the exception of a few extra gigantic water hogs.

I didn't speak about the water rates at the hearing. I addressed the inequities and abominations in the current tiered sewer fee structure. The staff told the council that they didn't have time to address the sewer issues. But because the sewer fund is overfunded, they recommended dropping fees 13% across the board. It speaks volumes about our city that the council has addressed and adjusted the water rates multiple times in one year, but cannot find time to fix the sewer rate structure.

Here is what the current and new sewer fees for single family residential look like:

The sewer fees (the chart says "rates" but it is incorrect) are lower, but all of the anomalies and inconsistencies remain. See the jump from Tier 2 ($44.07)to Tier 3 ($66.34)? That's still a 50% increase. A single glass of water from a customer who normally uses 12 units could push them into Tier 3 where they would have to pay an extra $133.62 ($22.27 x 6) per year.

And the rate is still lower for the big users. Someone who uses 44 units pays $2.23 per sewer unit and someone who uses 9 units pays $4.90 per unit. Why? Because the council is catering to the big winter water hogs.

There were few interesting or unexpected happenings at the workshop. Mayor Don Higginson cut off speakers he disagreed with with an abrupt, "Your time is up," and then let speakers he agreed with ramble on and on, and even allowed George Andreos to jump up out of his chair and speak even though he hadn't filled out a speaker's slip.  Not unexpected.

There was one unexpected moment. Council member Jim Cunningham asked the consultant how many other cities and water agencies were reverting back to a uniform unit rate for water. The consultant indicated that not a single one has. Almost all still have tiered water rates. So Poway will be the first. Technically, Poway still has tiered rates, but the second tier starts at the extreme water hog level of 200 units, so it only affects a very small percent of users, and only after their water use exceeds 199 units.

I'm in favor of tiered water rates. I know a lot of people were aghast that somebody would be charged more than someone else for their water. What's funny is that some of these same people were, until very recently, getting a discount rate for their water.  They seem to have a huge sense of entitlement. When they are being subsidized, that's OK, but when the reverse happens, it is the end of the world as they know it.

While some people call the old rates a "subsidy" to low water users, I prefer to call it an "incentive" for conserving. We have had incentives for buying water saving devices like low-flow showerheads and toilets. Tiered rates are another incentive for conserving water.  Our SDG&E gas and electricity rates are structured the same way as our tiered water rates. I know that when I get my bill, I look to see if I have exceeded the baseline amounts. If I have, it is a reminder to renew my conservation efforts.  This system provides benefits to the conservers and also to those who need the available resources to keep their businesses and industries humming. The same principles can be applied to our water rate structure. If conservation is incentivized,  more water is available for those who need large amounts of it. Poway's return to uniform water rates eliminates the incentive for conserving.

The new rates will require a Prop 218 vote. One more than half of us would have to send in a written protest. That's unlikely to happen, but the city has to pay to send out the notice anyway. In the notice that I received, there is an example of how the new rates will affect someone who uses 25 units of water and is in Tier 3 for sewer. I decided to take a more in-depth look to see what the new rates will mean.  Because I have water records (from Apr/May 09 to Feb/Mar 2010) for the city council members  I decided to use that data and compare what they would have paid under our current rate structure and what they will pay under the new rate structure.

The only problem is that none of our current council members live on small RS-7 sized lots like the ones in south Poway. So, I used the data I had from some south Poway council candidates for the June election, just so people could see how the rates will affect people who live in south Poway too.

Percentage-wise,  new water rates will hit small water users particularly hard. The increase in rates is about 25-28%. Large water users will see rates go up about 14-16%.

The fixed water fee will also increase from $26.00 to $28.00 per bi-monthly billing cycle. This fixed fee is the same for every user. It is like a "flat tax". Supposedly, it is to pay for some items which are not a function of how much water each customer uses. There is no such category in the Poway budget. There is no list or accounting of items that go into the fixed fee. In fact, all the money collected on our water bills for water go into the same pot and from that pot, all water related expenditures are subtracted. There are some items on that list which are not exactly consumption related, like, paying off the bonds for city hall, or paying the salaries and pensions of the city managers office. These items are traditionally paid for from property tax revenue, but have been shifted more and more to our water and sewer bills lately. We don't pay the same amount on our property tax bill for these items, so I am not impressed with the argument that we should all pay the same for them on our water/sewer bill. And to the argument that the fixed fees are an "access" fee, well, if we all pay the same access fee, then we should all have access to the same amount of water. And the right to sell that access to someone else if we aren't using our fair share of access.

As a reminder to how much the fixed fee affects the cost per unit of water, I have added the fixed fee in and divided by the total number of units to find the true per unit cost of water for each council member or candidate listed above. Here are the results:

The true cost of water is $4.41/unit for the highest volume user, Jim Cunningham (434 units).  The guy who used the least amount of water, Roger Willoughby, pays $5.58/unit. That's more than a dollar more per unit than Cunningham pays. Another reason I favor the tiered rates is because it helped to mitigate the impact the fixed water fee has on the low volume users. Now that the tiers are gone (rates effective in January 2011), the low volume users will be paying more per unit for their water again. Until we see some change in the council makeup, the low volume users are going to continue to pay an unfair share of the costs for their water and sewer.