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My Sunday Column: Water (wars) provide a lesson in government — and the reason why cynicism has won

Many government meetings are broadcast live and archived with a vast array of official records posted online. Mainstream media may be on financial life support, but more than half the adult population still reads a newspaper daily, in print or digital form, as part of their news overload from radio and TV and their blogosphere favorites.

We’ve never been so well-informed — or so cynical about our government and society.

Evidence of this is the long-term decline in voting, even with mail-in ballots. Polls show the vast majority of voters are unhappy with the endless political wars and the sense that they are working for the government, rather than the other way around.

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but it appears a lot of knowledge is even worse, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina argues in a new book titled, “Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics.”

I bring this up in the context of one of the longest-running political conflicts in Southern California — the water wars.

No subject is drier for most people than water, but the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — which supplies much of the water to nearly 20 million people across six counties — has a long history of interesting battles, mostly in recent decades between its two largest customers, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the San Diego County Water Authority.

San Diego harbors deep-seated grievances backed by lawsuits over the high price Metropolitan charges to pipe its allotment of water out of Imperial County and circuitously supply its communities — battles it nearly always loses, thanks to the clout L.A. has regionally.

The latest round last Tuesday was no different.

It seems that Metropolitan is awash with a $549 million surplus — 60% of that coming over the last two years — and with more than a $100 million in excess revenue expected next year. Not too bad for an agency selling 20% less water than in 2008 because of conservation programs and additional local supplies.

The surplus includes $75 million more than Metropolitan rules allow as the maximum for unrestricted reserves, so as bureaucrats suggested what comes naturally — spend it. They proposed using a third for capital costs, a third to pay down future unfunded liability for employee health care, and a third to be determined later.

San Diego wanted its share of the money back — more than $16 million — and to have the 5% rate increase due on Jan. 1 rolled back to 3%, which would add even more to the local kitty to ease rate-hike pressure or free up money for infrastructure.

Several other water agencies, including Long Beach, Beverly Hills, San Fernando and Fullerton, agreed with San Diego on most of the issues.

So did Burbank. Water officials sent a tough letter to the Metropolitan Water District on Monday, expressing how they were “disappointed, to say the least, to be informed so late about the rapid accumulation of funds in the Financial Reserve accounts … a surprise of this nature and magnitude is damaging to both our interests. It calls into mind our collective credibility.”

The city stood to get nearly $600,000 from the refund plan, and even more if the rate hike was reduced.

Glendale — with a refund of nearly $900,000, plus $300,000 more with the rate rollback — was ready to join the resistance, but had a last-minute change of mind. So Councilwoman Laura Friedman — the city’s member on the Metropolitan Water District board of directors — accepted the city staff recommendation and joined with L.A. in providing a 75% majority based on voting power related to the size of each agency.

“Basically, we felt it was a question of pay now or pay later,” said City Manager Scott Ochoa. “We liked the idea of getting money back, but it wasn’t enough to make a big difference in what we do, so paying down debt, reducing unfunded liabilities made some sense. We all have those issues.”

The L.A. County Chamber of Commerce and other supporters of the keep-the-money, keep-the-rate-hike strategy offered similar arguments, stressing the point that nobody knows what the future holds: drought, water shortages, tougher environmental regulations, higher costs for the State Water Project, and Gov. Jerry Brown‘s $14 billion plan for massive twin tunnels through the Sacramento Delta.

In other words, Metropolitan has your money and it’s keeping it as a kind of “rainy-day water fund” just in case.

My instinct is that Burbank was right to want the money now and Glendale was wrong to go along with the crowd.

I may be biased, since San Diego Water buys a small ad on my blog and I’m a long-time critic of the L.A. DWP’s multitude of abuses. But I’ve talked at length with Ochoa and Friedman, and I think they should have stuck to their guns and taken the money now — especially because Glendale, like most cities, is in the process of imposing a series of utility rate increases.

Given the obstacles California voters — for good reasons — have put in the way of government raising taxes, I know it’s easier by far to raise rates and fees because all it takes to justify them is to run up the costs of providing services, even if they come from higher payroll costs, loose contracting practices, sloppy management or dream projects for a perfect world.

If they spend the money, they can, under the law, recover every penny from you.

That’s what got so many of our cities, counties and the state in so much trouble over the years. Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

(THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED SUNDAY IN THE GLENDALE NEWS-PRESS)

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12 Responses to My Sunday Column: Water (wars) provide a lesson in government — and the reason why cynicism has won

  1. Rita-of-Sunland says:

    Obviously Ron, we need a Prop. 13 for utility costs, infrastructure costs and bureaucratic costs. Could be based upon how much and how long any one individual has “paid into The System.’” How could we fashion such a bill that would OVERWHELM the legislature so they couldn’t go against it? We should do this BEFORE the “Have-Nots” have more voting power than WE have. Thank you for writing and posting this article!!

  2. anonymous says:

    Rita-prop 218 is somewhat akin to prop 13. It’s not the same, but it’s meant to protect us from these crooks not profiting off of us. The problem is how they justify the costs (as opposed to the profit they are prohibited to make). Case in point: a crew is working on a relatively small water pipe on my street. There are three men working, five men watching (that’s necessary), ten men hanging out talking and seven men napping in their trucks. This padded work force is given outrageous raises, perks and pensions. Paying for all that may not be a profit (or maybe it is?) but it is egregious.

    Now, once you get into the penalty phase of the drought rates, there are some who argue that, after a point (like larger lots not allotted their fair share), the penalty is a profit. There are legal arguments that support it’s a profit but it has not been challenged in court. Ironically, if that run off parcel tax passes, they will surely charge more for larger lots. So, these larger lot owners pay their taxes to own more land, are not allotted more water but they will pay more for the run off.
    It’s truly criminal.

  3. Anthony Calpezzo says:

    While important for the developmental years of L.A., a storng case can be made that the MWD has signed, sealed and delivered the water crisis faced by California today, leading to Gov. Brown’s absurd $60 billion (don’t believe the $28 billion price tag his political handlers have placed on it) “tunnel vision” that will rape the water resources of the north while feeding the inept water bureaucracies of Southern California (with few exceptions).

    L.A. is becoming New Calcutta.

  4. John Walsh says:

    This is a fantastic column! It should be promptly re-printed prominently on the front page of every daily and weekly newspaper in the State of California. And read twice by everyone!

  5. Anonymous says:

    MWD has increased the water rates by 5%, and here in Pasadena we get a 10% increase based on that. In every city, water & power officials are taking advantage to line their own pockets to provide a basic necessity. These folks don’t own the water; we do. This whole water & power issue is a racket that requires FBI investigation. Every city needs to get rid of the current officials and start anew. LADWP is the worst. The dumbest line I’ve heard from them is that they generate their own revenues and thus are entitled to their obscene wages. They all need a re-education of the difference between revenue generation and ripping-off captive consumers.

  6. Pingback: My Sunday Column: Water (wars) provide a lesson in government — and the reason why cynicism has won | The Truth about The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

  7. Anonymous says:

    I bring your attention to an article by Jim Newton in LA Times today titled “The real test” and an excerpt so ignorant that it is worth repeating–”The tougher challenge may lie with the city budget. As was exhaustively reported during the campaign, two leading city employee unions — those representing police officers and Department of Water and Power employees — spent heavily to defeat Garcetti. Their contracts are up next year, and Garcetti will be in a position to negotiate with officials who desperately preferred his opponent.”

    “Their contracts are up next year” Here is the problem. What does it mean that their contracts are up? Are they private consultants or hired on a year to year basis so that if their contracts are not renewed, its over and they will be gone. We all know this to be a fallacy. They are all permanent city employees regardless of whether there contracts are renewed or not. They will never go away. This is just LA public Unions language where these blood suckers demand higher pays whether justified or not.

    So here is advice to Garcetti–no need to increase their pays at the expense of much needed services like street and sidewalk repair. If some of these city employees want to leave so be it. No one cares. There are thousands waiting in line to replace one of these high- paid employees. There is no contract here. It is Unions BS to extract more of your hard earned money.

    • Rita-of-Sunland says:

      I agree completely, Anonymous. You’re SO RIGHT— If City Hall says “no” to any raises, what are they gonna do, walk? Give up that cushy pension and job security?? Hell no!! Gawd, I can only PRAY Garcetti demonstrates some sense and leaves his liberal masochism behind!

      • ex valley says:

        Sorry but your prayers won’t be answered.
        Garcetti is a typical liberal hack who only knows how to spend taxpayers money on everything except what benefits the taxpayers.

  8. Oh boy—I got the Legislature to APPROVE A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT to raise property taxes on COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES!!!! We only need the State Senate to move forward, and with our 2/3 majority I’m sure we’ll get you fools to pay more! Now I get to collect my $180,000 salary plus benefits for the next 12 years “serving” you the IDIOTS of CD3!!! No, No, don’t thank me—No I thank YOU the FOOLS trapped in L.A. City and L.A. County who pay all the bills. I just wanted to leave Sacramento with a “gift” to all the hardworking small businesses.

  9. ex valley says:

    Soon you will have plenty of water –

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-water-20130624,0,2795946.story

    I am sure DWP will make it un contaminated. Don’t you worry.

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