Spending Money Like It’s Water at DWP
A good deal of what Nick Patsaouras told me Tuesday about the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which he oversees as a board member, is unfit to print. I don’t have enough dashes, ellipses and brackets to convey his rage over the department’s expenses, which include big bucks for lobbyists, writing teachers and, as if to send him over the edge, bottled water.
That’s right, the company that pumps the water to your tap apparently doesn’t always drink the stuff itself, as my colleague Patrick McGreevy reported.
Do they know something we don’t?
During the same two-year period that the DWP forked out $1 million to convince us its tap water is top of the line, it also spent $31,160 for Sparkletts bottled water. It’s like a McDonald’s employee sneaking in lunch from Burger King.
If it had been Perrier instead of Sparkletts, I think Patsaouras might have gone into cardiac arrest.
“At the next meeting, I’m going to attack them on the water and this $500,000 brochure,” he said, referring to the annual summary the agency sends out to let us know L.A.’s finest is safe to drink. “Why couldn’t it be written in the bill we get every other month that our water meets federal standards? Do we have to have fancy stuff, a half-million dollars’ worth?”
A half-million bucks is small potatoes in the context of a $4.3-billion budget -- a budget that will be going up now that the City Council has agreed to grant raises of at least 19% over five years to DWP members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But this is the historically reckless DWP, where you could take all the small potatoes over the years and stack them higher than the Himalayas.
I had Patsaouras’ name on my list of people to call this week even before the water story broke. He blew a gasket last month over the $2.2 million the water agency spends on lobbyists, while another board member wondered why a $465,000 contract with Aquila Fitness Consulting Systems was necessary. Patsaouras also wondered why the agency needed to spend $180,000 to teach employees how to write.
“How do they get in?” he wondered. If their job requires writing, why are they hired if they can’t write?
I’m guessing it’s the PR department that needs the remedial writing help. That might explain why, until two years ago, the water agency was spending $3 million a year on a politically connected PR firm -- whose former local manager is now under indictment for allegedly padding bills to the city -- despite having 14 employees in its own PR department.
“They’re not competent to do PR, because they keep shooting themselves in the foot,” said L.A. City Controller Laura Chick. “I’m always in awe of intelligent people who instead of saying, ‘Oops, you caught us with our pants down,’ actually get defensive and try to justify their actions, digging themselves into a deeper hole.”
She might have been referring to the water agency’s chief operating officer. Jim McDaniel told our man McGreevy “there is a taste issue for some people,” and they simply prefer bottled water to tap, maybe because of the chlorine in the DWP’s water.
Does the guy have no marketing sense at all? He should have said people are fools to waste their money on bottled water, and then he should have challenged anyone to a blind taste test. I called the water agency to make the suggestion. After waiting forever, I finally got a live person on the line and asked for McDaniel.
“You know what?” she said. “I don’t know who that is.”
Here’s an assignment idea for the next remedial writing class: Have the employees make a list of everyone who works at the DWP, along with his or her title and phone number. (One more tip: Put the chief executives at the top of the list.)
When I finally got McDaniel’s secretary, she quickly bounced me to Carol Tucker in corporate relations.
What’s up with the writing class? I asked.
Tucker said that’s a common thing at big agencies.
If so, does it really cost $180,000 to go over the ABCs? As a public service, I’d do it for half the price.
Tucker didn’t seem to appreciate my suggestion that they try to find someone in the PR department who was competent to teach the writing class. She also told me the Sparkletts is used primarily for workers at remote locations, and that the $500,000 water safety bulletin is a legal requirement.
I suggested the DWP make better use of its $2.2 million worth of lobbyists and get the legal requirement lifted. As for the Sparkletts in remote locations, I suggested the DWP have those employees buy their own water or take DWP tap water with them on the job.
Tucker said it’s cheaper to buy Sparkletts than to bottle tap water.
“Do you think we have a water bottling factory set up somewhere?” she asked.
As McGreevy reported, the DWP has 25,000 bottles of its own water for field use and emergencies. I’m assuming DWP employees were competent to fill those bottles, although it’s entirely possible the agency paid millions for an outside contractor to do it.
If it was an in-house job, couldn’t the same people just bottle more water? If not, maybe the water agency could cancel the writing class and replace it with a bottle-filling class.
“It’s a culture,” Patsaouras said of the agency’s penchant for signing fat checks without blinking. He ranted for several minutes about what he called a $600,000 audiovisual equipment contract “to move some speakers around” for in-house speeches.
But what really gets Patsaouras talking like a sailor is the DWP’s looming threat of a huge rate hike.
“I may sound corny,” he stormed, “but every time you want to spend a dollar, you should look straight into the eyes of a senior citizen who lives on $700 or $800 a month and tell him or her why you should be raising rates.”
Yes, and another thing.
DWP employees sneaking taxpayer-funded Sparkletts should be put on notice: If you don’t drink the water, you don’t keep your job.
I’d suggest the agency put it in writing, but that could be too much to ask.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez
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