Davis voters consider reversing path on water project

It’s election-year déjà vu in Davis, where opponents of the city’s water-rate increases are again taking the issue to the ballot box.

Measure P would reverse voter-approved rate hikes that went into effect last year to pay for Davis’ multimillion-dollar Surface Water Project with nearby Woodland and return rates to pre-May 2013 levels.

Proponents say the new rates grossly overcharge homeowners and renters who irrigate their yards while adding to what they say are increasingly costly bills for city services. But city leaders, who oppose the measure, say Measure P could undermine the $228 million project that broke ground earlier in April.

Davis water rates – about $35 a month on average in 2013 – will more than double by 2018 to about $85 per month, according to city officials. The city next year will set rates partly based on water consumption in the summer, when residents water their landscaping more often.

Measure P backers say that disproportionately penalizes residents who live in homes.

“The whole point is that the average homeowner will pay about 40 percent more per gallon under this system. We need a fairer system,” said Sue Greenwald, a Measure P supporter and former mayor of Davis. “Let’s have everybody pay approximately the same amount per gallon.”

The new rate structure, Greenwald said, will also “drive out our best customers,” including wealthier homeowners and new developments that could opt to bypass higher water costs by digging private wells for irrigation.

Greenwald said that means existing residential and business water users would likely subsidize the indoor water use of those who opted out of the higher rates and of any new subdivisions that tap their own well water.

Davis voters in March 2013 passed Measure I with 54 percent of the vote to raise water rates and move ahead with the project to supplement its groundwater with 12 millions of gallons a day from the Sacramento River starting in 2016.

Davis city officials say the water rate increases are needed to fund Davis’ $107 million share of costs for the Surface Water Project and avoid defaulting on the project altogether.

“There’s a lot at stake with Measure P,” said Herb Niederberger, the city’s public works director. “It would jeopardize funding of the project; $25 million spent to date would be lost. It’s my professional opinion that Measure P jeopardizes the city’s current actions. That’s a fact.”

In his report to City Council members Wednesday, Niederberger said the city would not be able to finance the project if Measure P passed and would have to pony up $50 million in damages to Woodland, including redesign and construction costs. Davis would have to spend $12 million more to retrofit a dozen of its groundwater wells to treat them for chromium contamination and ready them for city use, according to the report.

Davis would still be on the hook for $36.5 million in river water rights to be paid over the next 24 years, according to the staff report.

Greenwald dismissed the dire report as fear-mongering, saying that Davis would still be able to meet its project obligations with fairer rates.

“These are scare tactics of the worst sort. This is not going to affect whether the project goes through or not. It won’t jeopardize anything at all,” Greenwald said. “It’s just preposterous. All they have to do is set a fair rate.”

Greenwald joins Davis political veterans who are no strangers to battles over water rates. They include Michael Harrington, the Davis attorney and former councilman who led a 2011 referendum on rate hikes related to water projects. He also was part of the Yolo Ratepayers for Affordable Public Utility Services, the group that sued the city in 2013 over rate increases.

Mark Siegler, former vice chairman of the city’s influential Water Advisory Committee and a one-time Surface Water Project supporter before reversing course, is also a Measure P supporter. Siegler has said the water project’s costs and the dramatically higher water rates hit taxpayers too quickly on the heels of a series of recent school and park taxes.

The five members of Davis City Council – Lucas Frerichs, Brett Lee, Rochelle Swanson, Mayor Joe Krovoza and Mayor Pro Tem Dan Wolk – are all opposed to Measure P, along with Davis Chamber of Commerce CEO Kemble K. Pope and former mayor Kenneth Wagstaff.

Davis voters will consider another tax proposal in June, Measure O, authorizing the city to increase its present sales and use tax from a half-cent on the dollar to a full penny on the dollar – and extend the levy through 2020.

Davis’ water rate debate has been waged at City Hall, the courtroom and the ballot box for several years.

Measure P proponents sued to have the new rates overturned almost immediately after the 2013 vote, saying the rates violated the state’s Proposition 218, which restricts local governments’ ability to impose assessments and property-related fees. But a Yolo Superior Court judge in March upheld the rate structure, and repeal supporters have since taken their fight to the June 3 election.

Measure P detractors, in their argument, call the rate repeal effort a “last gasp” by die-hard water project opponents.

But Greenwald maintains the Measure P fight is about rate fairness, not the Surface Water Project.

“What I’m optimistic about is that the more (voters) learn about the rate structure, the more angry they’re going to be,” she said. “The fight’s not going to be over until people feel (the rates) are fair.”

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