Homeowners, Voters and the DWP Rate Increase

EASTSIDER-If you’re like most Angelenos, you’re worried about the upcoming DWP rate increases -- fearing that you are going to get fleeced, and frustrated that you can’t understand how it works. So here’s a very short primer that I hope is understandable, along with some suggestions as to what you can do. 

The basics: Over the next five years, DWP is looking for about 5% per year in water rate increases, and about 4% per year in power rate increases. That translates into roughly $1.2 to 1.4 billion in increases over the five years, depending on how you count a couple of variables. 

The really interesting part is that the DWP doesn’t particularly care how much any individual ratepayer pays in their bill. It’s basically an engineering company at heart, so what they really care about is the total number of dollars they will need over the five-year time period to do their job. Period. 

Who pays what and how that money is divided up into the rate structure for water and for power is of secondary interest to the people who have to do the actual work. 

What’s not needed: The hundreds of millions of dollars that the City grabs as a ‘transfer fee’ each year and the millions of dollars in “feel good pet projects” Council members shift over to the DWP – projects that you and I have to pay for in our DWP bill. We need to stop this ripoff! 

Guess who makes the decisions as to how much you and I will pay individually? The politicians, of course.  After looking at how other utility companies do their billing, hiring a bunch of consultants, and getting input from the Ratepayers Advocate, the DWP Board then votes to send recommendations to the LA City Council. Abut for practical purposes, it’s really the Mayor and the City Council that decide.  Remember, the Mayor appoints every single DWP Board member, and if they fail to do his bidding, they get zapped.  

You have probably heard me say that these new funds are mostly needed to fix the crumbling infrastructure (largely thanks to past manipulation by City Council,) and to pay for legislation requiring a high percentage of renewable energy over this same time period. Every time the Mayor, the City Council, or the State Legislature gets that old ‘feel good green hot flash’ impulse, they impose yet another set of unfunded mandates that the DWP has to implement. And of course, you and I are the funding for these unfunded mandates. 

I can make probably make enough changes in my own water/power needs to offset some of these increases, and can then marginally afford them. But if you talk to my 90 year old mother-in-law who gets about $1000 a month in Social Security, she’s not so thrilled -- nor can she absorb these increases.  All she gets from the politicians is a bunch of hot air and no help. For her and many other Angelenos, the bottom line is the cost, and she’s hurting. 

So let me give you the political math about DWP rate setting, along with some suggestions as to what we can do about it. All my politically savvy friends say that in the era of 10% voter turnouts for LA City elections, homeowners, representing about 40% of the overall population, are far and away the largest percentage (60%) of people who actually bother to vote in municipal elections. 

Why is this important? Because something like 90% of renters do not pay a water bill directly. Big apartment buildings have ‘master meters’ where there is no individual breakdown of use by unit.   Couple that with the Apartment Owners Association findings that about 78% of LA City apartments are subject to rent control, and you discover that there is unfortunately no reason that renters should pay attention to how much water they use -- and according to the LA Times, they don’t. 

Now if you are a homeowner in the Valley, where temperature swings are higher and lot sizes are much larger, you may take a double hit. The proposed new 4-tier system hits people with larger lots in higher temperature zones more than other ratepayers. 

So now you know that homeowners, particularly those in the Valley, have some proof that they are getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop. But are we doomed? And who can fix this? 

Remember, the DWP as an entity has no stake in the answer to these questions – all they want is their $1.2 to 1.4 billion over the five year period. It’s a political exercise. So forget the DWP Board of Directors, unless you like spinning your wheels and getting blown off. Don’t forget: the Mayor owns them. 

Of course, you could try to influence the Mayor himself, that is, if you could actually find him in between his jet setting travel schedule and photo ops. Good luck with that. 

Or, and here’s my proposal:  take a look at the LA City Council’s Energy and Environment Committee. That is where the proposed DWP Rate Increase goes after the DWP Board votes on them in December or January. That is where the proposals are subjected to the political process before the full Council votes on the final rates. And that is one of the few places where politics can still count in modifying ratepayer increases. 

And guess what? All five members of this committee are up for re-election in 2017. The Chair is Felipe Fuentes (CD7), and the other members are Gil Cedillo (CD1), Bob Blumenfield (CD3), Paul Koretz (CD5), and Mitch O”Farrell (CD13). These five are the most vulnerable of the pack, because the voters can actually hold them accountable for their actions. And face it, until a councilmember or two pays the price for ignoring us (as in, losing their sinecure), it will be business as usual for our “go along to get along” elected officials.  

Forget the details about the proposed DWP rate increases. Let’s talk about the “transfer fee” and the pet projects and why everybody doesn’t get treated the same way in their bills. 

Consider talking to all of the homeowners you know and the people and community groups they know. Start focusing on these five elected officials. Demand equal treatment in deciding who pays what for water and power rates. Tiers are not legally mandatory. Get rid of them. Make a stink. Demand answers about these issues from the members of the E&E Committee. You may discover that councilmembers don’t know as much as you think they should. Get excited and start talking about Valley Succession again. Whatever works! 

This fight may be uphill, but it is not a children’s campaign. If you do the political math of who owns homes and who votes, we are one whale of a special interest group. We know we are being used and we know we can do something about it at the polls. Heck, we might even get a fair rate structure. 

For more information about the DWP, its budget, and rate structure go to this link.  

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

-cw

 

CityWatch

Vol 13 Issue 100

Pub: Dec 11, 2015