Tuesday night’s city council hearing on water rate increases was quite painful to observe…and for more reasons than just their unanimous (7-0) vote to approve the rate increases.
You might imagine that Oxnard’s council members in these meetings would engage in substantive debate on whether the proposed rate increase is justified.
Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
The council members mostly offered word salad and platitudes about the importance of clean drinking water.
And the City Manager played an irrelevant, fear-mongering video about some U.S. cities that had tapped into contaminated water supplies, though Oxnard is not one of them.
Of course water is important -- and nobody argued otherwise! -- but the REAL question they’re supposed to pose is: How much should residents be charged for it?
Saying that water is important is not an argument for whether there should be a 5% increase or a 5,000% increase.
The council ignored substantive points made by public speakers. Among the points made:
- A particular industrial customer is getting a rate reduction while residential rates go up. In recent meetings the City’s rate consultant said it was because a particular category of costs – let’s call it Factor X – isn’t needed for that entity’s water supply, so those costs were being removed. However, we read aloud directly from a 2015 agreement with that customer to demonstrate that Factor X has for many years ALREADY been removed from its rates. So that can’t be the reason why those rates are decreasing NOW. The consultant’s response: Rates are decreasing because we’re removing Factor X from the calculation… (sigh!) No council member questioned that answer at all.
- Amounts to be charged ratepayers for six capital improvement projects are DOUBLE the price that staff recently listed in the City’s five-year capital improvement plan for those same projects—effectively “padding” costs by $70 million. That one factor alone increases rates on average by more than $1,600 per customer over the next five years.
- Courts have ruled that water conservation goals don’t allow a city to charge residents more than the actual cost of providing the water service, but the proposed new rates have a “drought rate” mechanism that the city council can use to drastically increase water rates even if the City’s costs of providing the service have not increased.
- The proposed rate structure results in some users subsidizing other users, an inequity disallowed by state law.
And what was the council’s reaction to public speakers giving verbatim quotes showing clear contradictions with the city’s own documents, referencing page numbers in specific documents that show capital project costs are grossly exaggerated, pointing to specific problematic language in the ordinance, citing particular court decisions, etc.?
It was as if we had been talking to a brick wall.
Besides the generic “clean water is important” deflections, Councilmember Bert Perello decided to angrily glare in our direction as he railed:
“Put up or shut up, people! If you have evidence, facts and evidence mean something. I’ll go with you to the District Attorney, but I’ve yet to see any of you put up anything! You put up opinion! … You’re almost like keyboard guerillas in the dark.”
Perello went on to mischaracterize those of us in opposition to the excessive rate increases as allegedly being “against providing pure water for the residents of Oxnard.”
Since the rate increase is an “ordinance,” it requires two readings and votes for the council to adopt it, so there will be a second vote on the same question at the next council meeting. In theory, they could change course, but they gave no indications that they will.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news…but we’ll at least finish with a funny story.
During a break in the proceeding, we politely asked the City’s rate consultant to have a conversation with us after the hearing to answer the questions that had not been addressed in the meeting. He said he would.
But… as soon as the council cast the vote, city staff immediately led the consultant to the back of the council chambers -- not accessible to the public -- to escape out the back door.
This is what the public gets while the city manager speaks of “transparency” in his administration.