Utility Watchdog in San Diego

UCAN heroine Bianca Garcia went up against SD Public Utilities Department (or SPUD) Director Roger Bailey in an exciting 1-on-1 battle hosted by KPBS. The radio event was filled with the usual avoided questions and skewed statistics that we expect from politicians, but as consumer advocates we are going give you as much truth as we can manage to dig out of their 500 ton pile of you-know-what. For those who would like to follow along with each point, read the full transcript.

Bailey was originally asked to respond to Bianca’s assertion that the money from the rate increase isn’t actually for water but for the department. That never got answered but let’s run through a few points that did get brought up…

ROUND 1

Bianca- only 28% of the budget goes to the actual purchase of water

Bailey’s response?

When you look at the water enterprise, 44% of the operation fund is for the costs of water.

First of all, there is no operation fund. Or if there is then it isn’t published in the 2010 or 2011 budget and is compiled of some random numbers that we’ll never be able to use. Our statistic, on the other hand, is based on California Water Authority purchases (the only place from which we buy water) compared to the total expenditures of the water department. These figures are calculated from SPUD's budget that is posted online. It’s as simple as that. No funny terms like “costs of water,” “operation fund,” or “water enterprise” that can be interpreted in a million ways. The devil is in the details here. If you look at the details of both statistics, our number may not be as pretty as 44% but it’s as straightforward as the percent of water purchased from the total expenditures of the water department.

ROUND 2

Bianca- low water users in San Diego pay the highest rates per unit of water.

Bailey’s response?

You can’t compare San Diego rates with others (like cities of Arizona) because they purchase water for less.

He is right on this one. Arizona cities do purchase water for less. Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re talking about here. To answer this question correctly he would have had to explain why even when you just look at the water agencies in the County of San Diego, City of San Diego low water users pay the 2nd highest rates.

ROUND 3

Bianca- there are ways for the public utility department to offset rate increases without cutting from capital improvement projects, such as cutting down fringe benefits which make up 64% of budgeted salaries.

Bailey’s response?

We want to “optimize the operation, become more efficient, and then to the extent, reduce costs.” Then later he says ...But “when you look at our operating budget and our total budget, the bulk of those things are relatively fixed.”

We hate to point out the obvious here, but you can’t cut costs if your budget is fixed. Make up your mind.  Are you going to reduce costs or are your costs fixed.  We recommend you learn to be flexible, or lie better about your aspirations.

BONUS ROUND

with SD Resident

Leonard from Clairemont jumps in the pit- The notice that went out to the San Diego County ratepayers, the front of the notice does not even indicate it relates to water rate increase.

Bailey’s response?

“He indicated that the notice did not specifically identify the purpose up front. And I'm looking at a copy of this notice here, and it says the San Diego City Council will hold a public hearing to consider a proposed water rate increase as a result of an increase by the county water authority for the wholesale water costs of water of that's up front. That's on the front page of that.”

Please note the “front page” he's referring to is not the first page that the consumer sees. The first thing the consumer sees is where their name and address is written.  On this real front page, there is NO mention of a water rate increase or how to protest the increase. Even on Bailey's "front page" it says nothing about one's ability to protest or that there's a protest form inside. I guess politicians have different definitions for things like “front page” and “costs of water.” And big red flag against Bailey for twisting Leo’s “front of the notice” into “identify the purpose up front.” Why would Bailey think Leo was accusing him of not being up front? Guilty conscience maybe? Freudian slip?

Well that’s all folks. We thank you for tuning in to the recap of UCAN vs. SPUD, we hope you will check out the transcript for yourself to see that we have not skewed the language in any inappropriate manner.

We would like to acknowledge that Deputy General Manager of San Diego County Water Authority Sandra Kerl was also present in this battle discussing the current lawsuit against Metropolitan Water District over what is believed to be illegal overcharging of water; a lawsuit UCAN is proud to have joined.

Also, we would like to thank Bailey for the invitation to tour the facilities and to look through the books. Our engineer consultant has actually already taken the tour so we’ll pass on that, but we will definitely be taking you up on looking through the books.

Posted January 27th, 2011