Ron Kaye: Water provides a lesson in government

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.


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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