Newton: DWP rate hike can't wait

PoliticsElectionsUnionsJobs and WorkplaceEric GarcettiHerb Wesson

For Los Angeles to meet its legal obligations and provide for a more sustainable energy and water future, rates must go up. Soon.

The City Council doesn't like to acknowledge that because it knows there are few more predictable ways to raise the ire of Angelenos than to tinker with power and water rates. That's why the council, after its last dust-up with the Department of Water and Power, put a measure before voters to establish a city ratepayer advocate. Voters overwhelmingly approved that measure in March.

That's when the dawdling began. It took months for the council and the city attorney to put together language structuring the office; months more to appoint a commission to screen candidates. Eric Garcetti, who was president of the City Council at the time the advocate position was approved, said he expected the advocate to be in place by September, but now we're into December and the job is still vacant (the deadline for applications ended last week). Realistically, no one will be named to that position before next year, and only then can he or she begin to study rates and prepare to report on them to the council and the public.

Meanwhile, the DWP faces deadlines established by law and unbendable to politics. To meet state and federal safe-drinking-water standards, the DWP is having to cover 10 Los Angeles reservoirs and implement other clean water measures. These fixes will cost upward of $1 billion over the next five years and will represent the largest investment in water infrastructure in the DWP's history.

In early March, the agency is set to enter into a $220-million contract as part of that upgrade.

Here's where politics bumps up against responsible leadership. Council members say they won't approve a rate increase until the new ratepayer advocate is in place. This is no surprise, because the advocate exists in large part to give the council cover to back a hike. But the DWP can't enter into its contract without a rate increase, and at this pace, the advocate won't be in position to bless that increase.

Ron Nichols, the DWP's still relatively new chief, is a fairly laconic guy. He doesn't seem easily upended by petty politics, but you can hear his patience wearing thin on this topic. The agency has held more than 30 public meetings on rates, and he's explained this issue more times than he can recall. And yet, time and again, politics intrudes.

"I've been working with council … around this issue," he told me last week on a break from a visit to the Owens Valley, site of DWP's crowning achievement. "We've pushed things back as far as we can."

Not all council members are the same, of course, and some do, at least privately, recognize the need for action. New Council President Herb Wesson is shrewd enough to recognize that the council can't stall forever, and others, including Garcetti, will certainly do the right thing when they have to. Some, however, are more prone to pandering. They'll shriek about the unfairness of it all, and won't budge until they can hide behind a fee-hike recommendation from the ratepayer advocate.

What's particularly craven about this debate is that it comes at a time when rates are actually dropping — the result of last year's wet winter — so residents would barely notice this increase. If it were approved, residents who last year were paying about $44.50 a month for water would, next year, pay a little less than $46 a month. The price for safe drinking water and compliance with federal and state laws would be little more than a buck-and-a-half a month. See how far that will get you at Starbucks.

Yes, the DWP has a history of cutting sweet deals with its unions, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is among the city's most bare-knuckled employee groups. But this isn't about union politics. DWP users pay far less for their water and power than customers in other California jurisdictions. Even with this hike, they'd still pay less. As a result, some of the DWP's most reliable critics are on board with this increase.

None of this is terribly surprising, of course, from a political culture as skittish and risk averse as Los Angeles'. But it should continue to offend when elected leaders duck their responsibilities. As Nichols put it: "Our board has to act."

jim.newton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoliticsElectionsUnionsJobs and WorkplaceEric GarcettiHerb Wesson
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