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.

August 16, 2010

Two Birds, One Stone

Remember that Don't -Talk-About-Wal-Mart letter the city attorney sent to the council members and city council candidates? She warned them not to talk to the people who would have to live with these projects, because their input might taint the approval process. The council is supposed to be so unbiased when they make land use decisions that they are not supposed hear or talk about a project until it is up for approval.  Then they are supposed to listen to all the sides and make a "quasi judicial" decision after hearing all the evidence. Ha! What a joke. Apparently this quasi mumbo jumbo stuff only applies to Wal-Mart and nothing else.

Seriously. First of all, the council members are also the redevelopment agency board. And the redevelopment agency is the chief developer in town. Right now, the redevelopment agency (literally, the city staff) has been meeting sub rosa (latin for secretly) with Lowe's and Poway Toyota and working out a little deal where they move Poway Toyota over to the empty car dealerships on the other side of the street. Then, there will be room for Lowe's on the north side of Poway Rd after the council cuts them some slack on the required setbacks. How is the council supposed to be unbiased when they review a project that their own agency has been working on for months? There is absolutely nothing any member of the public can say that is going to turn this project back, because the deal has already been decided.

I haven't read all the details, but here is the gist of it: We are going to pay Toyota some $3 million in incentives to move across the street.  You might wonder where that $3 million is going to come from since the governor got his hands on the city's redevelopment money. No problem. Remember the sewer slush fund? Turns out the city skimmed $3 million from that to "backfill"  Redevelopment for a sewer project on Oak Knoll Rd that the Redevelopment Agency had already paid for. No wonder the staff doesn't want to talk about the sewer fees. Where would they get money to play auto-dealer musical chairs with if they couldn't fleece us on our sewer bills?

The city is insisting that Toyota add a auto-body shop when they move across the street. Auto-body shops are notorious air polluters. And this one will be adjacent to residential property. So, in addition to a car wash that will exceed residential noise levels, the resident's will have to get used to a plethora of carcinogens wafting around. These residents should keep in mind that when they get cancer, it is all for the common good because the city can get lots of sales tax money to support the bloated salaries and pensions of the  staff and to keep the quality of life humming in north Poway.

And speaking of north Powegians...Dick Lyles posted some pro-WalMart cheerleading on the Poway Unslanted blog:

Time and again, it has been demonstrated that when a Walmart with groceries enters a community, consumer prices drop throughout the market, sales tax revenues increase and local business grows.  Bringing groceries to the Poway Walmart store will allow families to save money on their grocery bill and stimulate Poway’s economy.
The WalMart expansion will not change the city’s general plan.  The only question is whether we want a good WalMart at that location or a better one.

That's so sweet of Dick to care about helping families save money on their grocery bills. Dick, here's some empathy coming right back at ya'. I know you live about as far from Wal-Mart as someone can live and still reside within the Poway city limits. You not only live far from Wal-Mart (and all of of its impacts), you live far away from any shopping opportunities. You live in blighted, store-free north Poway.

For many decades now, north Powegians have heroically (and without complaint) traveled to Rancho Bernardo to buy the basic necessities. That is a waste of time and gas, and it means San Diego is getting a big chunk of our sales tax dollars. I propose we remedy that. I have figured out a way to bring retail opportunities (and sales tax generation) to north Poway. The city should buy Maderas Golf Course and put in a regional shopping mecca.  It would solve a couple of big problems all at once.

First, north Poway is golf course rich and shopping center poor. Taking out an excess golf course and putting in a shopping center will be a real win-win. Think of all the water we will save. The golf courses use 4% of all of the water sold in Poway. And they pay about half of what the rest of us pay. The city could get a lot more money selling that water to someone else.

It really wouldn't be too difficult. The roads are in. Espola Rd is capable of carrying just as much traffic as Poway Rd. There shouldn't be too many environmental constraints since they already wiped out the vernal pools and most of the sensitive habitat when they built Maderas. Not many people would be impacted by the noise 'cause most of the nearby residents have an acre or two as buffer.

One little problem is that the golf course provided a public benefit. In lieu of paying the required park fees, the city council, at Don Higginson's suggestion, allowed Maderas to substitute a few public tee times instead. So, to compensate for this great public benefit that will be wiped out if a regional shopping center is built here, I suggest we alot some space for a couple of sports fields. There is plenty of room, and plenty of water and parking, so it should work out fine.

I think a regional shopping center smack dab in the center of north Poway is really the best and highest possible use for that land. And if San Diego ups their sales tax rate, folks from Rancho Bernardo would be flocking to Poway to shop.  Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching, I can hear the money dropping in our sales tax coffers now.  It's like killing two...three...maybe even four birds with one stone: more sales tax revenue, more water available, more playing fields and Dick Lyles can shop in his own neighborhood. Who wouldn't be in favor of such a brilliant idea?

August 13, 2010

Geo-Politics 2

(click on map to make it larger)

The June recall election in Poway shifted geo-political power to the north.  Literally and figuratively. Betty Rexford, who lived on the southern border of Poway was recalled and replaced by John Mullin who lives on Del Poniente in north Poway.  The entire council now hails from the north, except for Boyack, who lives but a hop, skip and jump south of the Twin Peaks boundary. The change had an impact immediately. The council decided to raise water rates 33% for the lowest water users in order to give a break to the highest water users. For all practical purposes, the tiered water rates will disappear in January and everyone except the most extreme high water users will pay the same flat water rate.  But the fixed water fees that disproportionately tax low water users will increase and the sewer charges that are skewed so that the lowest users pay more per unit than the largest users will stay that way until, oh, maybe, Jan 2012...if they have time for it. It is a win for the greedy large water users, and their new guy, John Mullin, was right with them all the way.

None of the current councilmembers lives anywhere near Wal-Mart, or the proposed Lowe's. With the exception of Boyack, none of the current council members lives anywhere near a retail store or commercially zoned property. Most of them probably shop in Rancho Bernardo, which is closer to them than the retail stores on Poway Rd.

None of the current council members  have traffic from the industrial park or a car dealership winding through their neighborhood. There are no affordable housing projects in their neighborhoods. It wouldn't "fit", as they say.   There are no shopping carts littering their streets. No lights from the industrial park spill into their backyards. None are threatened with a proposed automobile paint shop just feet from their living rooms. Or a noisy car wash. Or a late night deliveries of a Wal-Mart truck.

For the most part, the current city councilmembers live in neighborhoods that have a different quality of life than the "urban" part of Poway. They seem blind to quality of life issues in south Poway neighborhoods. They easily vote to sacrifice our quality for revenue generation but they would be aghast at a proposal to put some of the same type of revenue generators anywhere near their homes.

For the upcoming November election, the map looks much the same. At least physically. Three candidates will challenge the incumbents: Nick Stavros, Pete Babich and Dave Grosch. Stavros lives in north Poway, as does Babich, although the Babich family lived near Valley School for many years when his sons were growing up. Grosch lives in south Poway, just a hop, skip and a jump further south than Boyack.

I'm not going to say that these 3 guys have hearts of gold or the vision of Ghandi or anything like that. Politics is too tricky and people seem to change after they are elected. But I can say that all 3 have shown that they care about other people's neighborhoods in Poway and not just their own.

Dave Grosch has led the NO WE group which opposes the Wal-Mart expansion in its present location. Interestingly, Grosch owns Wal-Mart stock. It is in his own interest to see Wal-Mart grow and expand.  So chalk one up for Dave for being able to set aside his own best interest to look out for the interest of the community.

Dave's campaign against a monolithic Wal-Mart isn't even his best stuff. In his professional life, Dave was a financial manager, advising a couple of defense firms. He's retired now and has his eyes set on reducing the huge salaries and publicly-paid pension benefits of some city employees that are becoming more and more unsustainable. He wants to change that before we need to build a big box store or two every year just to keep up with it. Go Dave!

Nick Stavros has a long history of civic activism in Poway. Some of his issues are primarily north Poway issues and some are primarily south Poway issues.   Nick led the fight against development in east Poway. He has also taken a deep interest in the widening of Espola Rd. issues.

Nick certainly cares about his own back yard, but he manages to care about other people's backyards, too. Nick has long supported finding a spot in Poway for public athletic fields that are not adjacent to someone's backyard. He opposed the Girl's Softball Park in its current location because the noise and traffic had such a negative impact on that neighborhood.  Nick supports the expansion of the green spaces in Community park and increasing the passive park space (park space that is free to use and not signed out to sports teams or commercial entities) in south Poway neighborhoods.  It is one thing to fight against something like a noisy park that affects YOUR own backyard, but it is a whole different kind of person who will also fight to protect quality of life in someone else's backyard.  Yay Nick!

I first met Pete Babich when our son started playing soccer. We coached our son's team for, oh let's see, from age 6 to age 19, so about 13 yrs. Pete was one of the people that kept the Poway Soccer Club going from week to week and from season to season.  This was back in the day when people had land lines for phone service. And you couldn't just turn them off. Even back in those days, people took their wins and loses and bad refs calls a little too seriously, so I know Pete's phone must've rung about a billion times with complaints. Hmmm, perfect preparation for being a city council person, don'tcha think?

I don't remember calling Pete very often. At least not with complaints. But what I do remember is that Pete gave me some coaching advice. He told me to take a chair and sit in it.  And I did. It helped prevent me from running up and down the sidelines trying to scream directions at my players. It was the best advice. Good for my players and good for me. That's one of Pete's fortes- analyzing things and figuring out what really works and what doesn't. Pete refereed our games sometimes, especially when the boys got older and into the upper divisions. I never heard them complain about his calls. They knew how he would ref, and he was consistent. He got control of the game early by calling the first flagrant foul he saw and giving the player a yellow card. Then everyone knew what the limit was and would settle down.

After our soccer years were over, I kindof lost contact with Pete. I knew he moved up to north Poway and was running a successful consulting business. I knew he had gotten involved with Poway Dem Club and was also protesting against the War in Iraq.  I was thrilled to hear that he was running for city council. Not because he had a long history of community involvement outside of the billions of hours he put into soccer, but because he seemed to have a real innate sense of fairness and a lot of competence.  And I don't think it hurts that Pete recognized and protested against the the tragic human and financial waste that was the War in Iraq.  Thanks, Pete.

So, for the November elections, all of our choices live in or near to North Poway. The incumbents have shown that if they have to chose between quality of life in south Poway or revenue generation, they will chose revenue generation every time. But they would staunchly oppose any revenue generators in their neighborhoods. The mere thought would make them go apoplectic!  The challengers, Stavros, Grosch and Babich, are untested as Poway decision makers, but they are south Poway's only chance for a council member that would give a damn about our quality of life too.