The board of directors of the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) got an earful from the public on a proposed 4 percent rate hike but put off making a decision on the increase until May 23. The board also pushed back until June 1 its proposed effective date for the increase.
The postponement was necessary because a database error had caused the district to miss 1,300 of its customers when it sent out the first batch of public notices—required by California law—in March, according to MMWD General Manager Paul Helliker. A second batch of notices was subsequently sent out, but not in time to allow the board to make a final decision at the meeting.
If that took the wind out of the sails of the assembled protestors, it wasn’t obvious. After Interim Finance Director Oreen Delgado presented the same MMWD budget statistics she presented at —statistics showing that revenues and cash reserves are down and costs are up—the public got the chance to chime in.
Mill Valley resident Clayton Smith said the revenues the district expects to get from the rate increase might not be realistic. Higher rates would lead to reduced consumption, which would lead to more rate increases, he said, and inflation might raise future fixed costs even higher than anticipated. Noting that the expected rate-increase revenue amounts to about 10 percent of the district’s personnel budget, he proposed an alternative.
“It’s time to have a 10 percent cut in pay,” he said. “This is what many businesses in the United States have done in this recession in order to survive and serve their customer base.”
David Yovino, of San Rafael, expressed the concerns of many with a touch of gallows humor.
“I’d love to put up on that screen there the budget of David J. Yovino, so you all could see how my rates have gone up across the board—energy, garbage, gas, everything,” he said. “You guys suggested that we lower our consumption a couple years ago, or there would have to be a rate increase. We did exactly what you asked for, to the letter. Then you came back and said we saved too much [water], ‘we’ve got to raise the rates.’ So when are the rates going to go down ever?”
As to personnel costs, Yovino addressed district management directly while creating a rare light moment in the proceedings.
“I mean no disrespect,” he said, “but what’s your salary? Can you take one for the team?”
Susan Hopp, of Mill Valley, said it was clear to her that the MMWD budget was not sustainable.
“I’m not for the rate hike because I see it as continuing to be a Band-aid approach,” she said. “I think there have been rate increases each year since about 2007, and based on what you’ve presented tonight I don’t see that changing. On top of that, there’s really nothing creative about this rate-hike proposal.”
“I don’t really have a problem with raising rates, because I think water is really undervalued right now,” said Hopp. “But I think it’s time for some real creativity and innovation.”
Jim Phelps, speaking for his Kentfield parents and introducing himself as a power engineering specialist, said he had evaluated the district’s power bills and determined that just in the last quarter the district would have saved $25,000 by buying its electricity from PG&E instead of the .
San Rafael-area resident Mike Scott wanted to know if the district was shopping around for the best deals on its fixed costs. And Kentfield resident Basia Crane supported a “super saver” rate that would be lower than the lowest rate for customers who do the best job of conservation.
Mel Beck, of San Rafael, took aim at the board’s own expenses. Referring to the fiscal year 2010 figures, he said, “The medical and dental benefits amount to some $51,000. That’s more than I spend and more than a lot of people spend.”
He also questioned what he said was a junket to Vienna taken by a board member at ratepayer expense. That brought an interjection by board member Cynthia Koehler, who addressed Helliker.
“Paul, can I just ask—did somebody take a trip to Vienna that we didn’t know about?” she asked. “I just want to clear up that factual issue since it seems to keep coming up. Can we just get that clarity on the record somehow?”
“Sure, I’ll take a look at the 2010 expenses and respond to Mr. Beck,” said Helliker, effectively leaving the factual issue unclarified and off the record, at least for the moment.
Ann Spake, of Mill Valley, suggested the district consider water budgets and allocation-based rates. Board member David Behar responded that those ideas and others would be considered by the district’s Water Rate Task Force, which will be looking at all aspects of the rate structure and make recommendations for 2011 and beyond.
“Please show up at those meetings,” said Behar. “Participate in that process because it’s intended to look from soup to nuts at how our structure is working today, how it’s not working, and how we need to revise it.”
Things really got heated when Jodee Sacco of Tiburon suggested that the board had been deceptive in giving notice of the rate increase, then questioned whether the board’s salaries had gone down in the recession.
“We don’t make salaries, we get a stipend,” said board president Jack Gibson.
“Well has your stipend gone down?” asked Sacco.
Sacco’s comments set both Gibson and Behar on edge.
“If you disagree with the rate increase, completely legit,” said Behar, “but saying that we’re trying to deceive you and thereby not comply with [the notice requirements of] Prop. 218 is simply an unsupported charge.”
Board president Gibson then jumped in on the stipend issue. “The 40 hours more or less from month to month that I spend on the water district is compensated by a stipend in hundreds of dollars, not thousands of dollars. The amount of money it costs me to sit on this board and perform service for you is immeasurable.”
“If you actually think that we sit up here for the money, you’re missing the boat,” he said.
Corte Madera resident Rachael Guinness was the district’s lone supporter among the speakers. She praised the water district, citing the prompt repair of a broken water main at her house as an example of the good work the district performs.
“I have great appreciation for the challenges the water district faces and the efficiency with which it is run,” she said. “It seems to me that a more appropriate response than some of the comments in this room would be to send ‘thank you’ notes.”
“The reality is that water is cheap,” she said, “and if you’re bill is expensive, then you’re using a heck of a lot of it.”
Guinness encouraged the board to set conservation goals and look for permanent ways to reduce water consumption. “We should be preparing ourselves now for the next drought, while we have time.”
Koehler closed the meeting by scolding the protesters like a stern schoolmarm.
“What’s coming into your home isn’t just water that falls for free from the sky,” she said. “It doesn’t get into your taps by accident. It doesn’t fall from the sky into your sinks. That takes energy, it takes the people that so many of you here today have denigrated and insulted and treated with your comments with such disregard and such disdain that it’s very troubling to me. You can always turn to the people who serve your community and say ‘Do more! Do it for free!’ and I have to tell you I find that unreasonable.”
In addition to the general rate hike, the council is also considering changing the rates charged to customers with medical disabilities. Currently all qualifying customers receive the lowest Tier 1 rates. Under the district’s new plan, those customers would pay the same rates as other customers but would receive an extra allocation of water in their Tier 1 quota.
The next hearing—and if all goes as planned the board vote—will take place at 7:30 p.m. on May 23 in the San Rafael City Council Chambers, 1400 Fifth Ave., in downtown San Rafael.