Though the City of Oxnard still stubbornly pursues the lawsuit seeking to have Measure M declared illegal, even they have now realized the need to do something else besides just bet on winning in court. The city council has now directed their employees to start again the process of setting new wastewater rates. Time will tell whether they will actually listen to what the voters said.
Measure M was adopted by the voters to roll back the city’s excessive 87% rate increase. A judge has granted the city's request for a stay to keep the rate rollback from going into effect until such time as the lawsuit can go to trial. Even without the judge’s stay, the wording of Measure M clearly specified that the city council retained the power to go back to the drawing board and try again to be fair to the ratepayers.
When Measure M was adopted, we encouraged the city to move quickly to establish new, more reasonable rates. Frankly, we were surprised that they did not have a backup plan ready to go on the day after the election…but they didn’t.
Because of the judge’s stay, the city is still collecting the first incremental increase of 35% which went into effect in March. When the city loses in court, they’ll have to refund the difference between the rejected-by-Measure-M rates and the previous rates. You would think the city would want to get new rates in place as quickly as possible to minimize the amount of time for which they need to issue refunds…but their tentative schedule shows they don’t intend to move quickly.
This week the city council authorized a contract for a consultant engineering firm to develop a new Cost of Service Study, which is a document justifying a proposed set of rate increases. The council directed staff to begin the legal process of setting new rates with a target effective date of July 1, 2017, and they directed creation of a Utility Ratepayers Advisory Panel (URAP).
The URAP is nothing new. It is a group of citizens who are asked to study the situation and make recommendations on rate increases to the council. The council created a URAP in 2015 also, before the 87% rate increase. Unfortunately, it was a pointless exercise. City staff tightly controlled the URAP meetings, the timing, and the subject matter. In the end, they did not even allow the URAP to make any recommendations.
We warned the city council this week that another URAP is likely to again be a dog and pony show like the last one. The staff-proposed URAP schedule suggests a repeat performance.
Three URAP meetings are proposed, with an optional fourth meeting. The draft Cost of Service Study showing the new rate proposals isn’t due to be completed until February 7th…only ONE DAY before the third (and potentially final) URAP meeting. The previous such study was 168 pages long. How are URAP members supposed to digest that amount of information and make well-considered recommendations overnight?
Then the schedule says the rates will be finalized two days later on February 10th, before there is even a chance for a fourth URAP meeting. It seems the city does not intend to allow the URAP to have any substantive input into the final rate proposals. All signs suggest that this URAP will again be for show, a pretense of public participation.
It is hard to make government bureaucracies listen and learn, but it can be done with persistence. We’ll need your help along the way. We intend for there to eventually be an acceptable outcome from this soap opera plot.