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EDITORIAL: Why no one listens to outrage at repeated water rate hikes

Date:

Citrus Heights Water District
Citrus Heights Water District directors, Ray Riehle and Caryl Sheehan, left, listen to a staff member during a Dec. 5, 2018, hearing. // CHWD.

Every year that the Citrus Heights Water District proposes rate increases, you can count on a clamor of loud voices on social media criticizing the increase, along with several dozen protest letters sent to the district, followed finally by a small handful of ratepayers who bother to show up to the legally required public hearing.

You can also count on the three-member water district board voting unanimously to approve the increase each year, which, following the latest double-digit increase to be voted on Nov. 25, will amount to ratepayers being charged over 50% more than they did in 2015.

Related: Citrus Heights Water District to vote on new double-digit rate increase

There’s two big reasons why the board doesn’t listen to the clamor of voices opposing the rate increases:

Voters have proven that they don’t care enough to act. Last year there was an open seat on the water district board, but it didn’t even show up on the election ballot because only one person applied for the seat. He won his seat by default.

This same thing also happened in the 2016 election. And in elections where a water district board position is actually on the ballot, many voters skip over the race and leave it blank.

Voters can’t argue with any consistency that their water district board members aren’t being responsible as an accountability board when the voters themselves aren’t serving their role to hold their board members accountable.

Ratepayers are willfully ignorant. Shouting that the water district should tighten up its budget instead of raising rates might sound like a good talking point, but in reality it doesn’t help.

What would be helpful would be saying specifically what the board should cut. Some argue the water district’s general manager salary is too high, with his total pay listed at over $180,000 last year, according to wage information published by the State Controller’s Office.

If you think $180,000 is too high, tell the board what the salary should be, and why. But the reality is that salaries attract the right person for the job.

In a tight labor market, where almost everyone is employed and no one is looking for work, why should someone come to the district instead of taking a higher paying job elsewhere?

That being said, there’s some merit to questioning why a district with only 35 employees has more than a third of those with total pay over $100,000 a year. Six-figure pay may make sense for management, but not for the average worker.

Carmichael Water District, with 37 employees, pays its general manager about the same as Citrus Heights, but only four of its employees have total wages over $100,000. The same is true of Fair Oaks Water District, and with both districts, their total wages paid out last year were around $2.1 million, while Citrus Heights Water District’s total wages are listed at $3.3 million.

For anyone interested, wage information for government employees can be viewed and compared online at publicpay.ca.gov.

But more proof of the ratepayers’ willful ignorance is that the district’s Customer Advisory Committee meeting videos, which are published on Youtube, only have a handful of views — none of the meetings from this year have more than 30 views.

Anyone who watches these videos would know that there is a need to replace more than 200 miles of aging water mains beginning in 2030, which is estimated to cost a minimum of $390 million. To put that in perspective, the district’s entire 2020 budget is only $20 million.

That means there’s a “tidal wave” of water main replacements that the district knows is coming and is taking action now to make plans for. The district deserves huge credit for investing significant time and effort to put together a committee of more than two dozen customers and stake holders to plan more than 10 years ahead for “Project 2030.

Obviously rates will have to go up to pay for this, but the Customer Advisory Committee recently came up with a well-reasoned recommendation to add a 5.5% surcharge to water bills beginning in 2020 to help pre-fund the coming water main replacement tsunami. The board will be voting on this separately at a later date.

However, the 5.5% surcharge will be a totally separate charge from the current rate increase — meaning it will be added on top of the existing 11% increase being proposed on Monday night.

Sadly, the average ratepayer knows nothing about these things, and that’s largely their own fault since the information is available online. However, the water district also bears some responsibility, which are addressed in the following steps.

Here’s 4 practical steps forward:

  1. The water district must release a multi-year plan for annual rate increases. When voters are in the dark, they are understandably skeptical. Under the district’s former general manager, a water rate study was conducted by a hired consultant, which recommended a modest 3% annual increase from 2015 to 2018.

    The district initially followed that plan, but later completely dropped it and replaced it with nothing, for several years, under the leadership of the current general manager, Hilary Straus. According to Straus, it has now been replaced with a 10-year financial plan (separate from Project 2030).

    When asked what rates are projected to be in 5 or 10 years, Straus told The Sentinel in a phone interview on Wednesday that it would be “irresponsible” for him to share that information, saying that if the district is able to out-perform their budget they’ll be able to lower the projected rate increases and therefore projections shouldn’t be made public.

    He also said the board hasn’t even seen the 10-year rate numbers being requested, which, if that’s true, the board should demand to see the numbers and release them to the public before the Monday night vote. That’s the responsible thing to do.

    The district is being inconsistent in releasing financial data related to water main replacements (Project 2030), which is 10 years out, but when it comes to annual rate hikes, it only wants the public to see rate changes two months in advance when it sends out its legally required Prop 218 notice about the proposed rate increase.

    If rates will have gone up 50% since 2015, will they double, triple, quadruple, over the next 10 years? Ratepayers deserve to know and they also deserve to know specifically where the additional revenue will go.
  2. The board must be accessible to those who elected them. Water district board members are elected officials who serve as an oversight board for a public agency with a $20 million budget, which means they are directly accountable to voters. As such, their contact information — at least an email address — should be publicly posted on the district website.

    The City Council serves this same function at the city level, as an oversight board for city government, and their emails are readily available on the city website. Why is there zero contact info listed on the district’s website for its elected board members?
  3. The board should approve a lower fixed-rate charge. The board has discretion to approve a smaller increase than is currently being proposed. Those on a fixed income need to have ways of keeping their water bill lower through conservation, and the board needs to consider the impact of rate hikes on the poor.

    State law currently doesn’t allow for lower rates to be charged to those on lower incomes, but the fixed-rate charge can remain the same for everyone, at an already high charge of $78 for an average 1-inch meter, rather than going up almost $10 per bill as proposed. At minimum, the fixed-rate increase should be reduced somewhat — serving as a symbolic gesture of trying to do the right thing in serving customers.

    How could this be paid for? Well, since the district says the average total increase is only 22 cents a day per customer, that seems simple enough to find room for in the district’s $20 million budget.

    But, for a practical example, the board could look into how neighboring water districts have been able to keep their wage costs more than $1 million lower, while having roughly the same number of employees.
  4. Ratepayers must get involved. The Customer Advisory Committee is a great start, but an active, informed public is what makes for good government. A bumper sticker, seen from time to time, reads: “Get involved. The world is run by those who show up.”

    That succinct statement accurately reflects the real world and applies to all levels of government, including the Citrus Heights Water District. Ratepayers would do well to follow that advice.

    The alternative — staying ignorant and un-involved — results in a consequence that’s also short enough to put on a bumper sticker: “You get what you tolerate.”

To learn more about the water district’s upcoming public hearing on Nov. 25, see story: Citrus Heights Water District to vote on new double-digit rate increase

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