Just one day after San Diego City Councilmembers donned their selective-thinking caps and voted 7 to 2 in favor of jacking up water rates for residents, a headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune told the part of the story our electeds aren't super keen on addressing. "Poverty in a land of plenty," it read, striking an ominous tone as we move closer to 2016.
This important article detailed how California has added jobs over the last four years at "a rate faster than all but six other states." During the same time period, the poverty rate has climbed.
According to 2014 census data, this swift increase in both categories gives California the distinction of having the fourth-largest gap in the country (after Nevada, Florida and New Mexico) between those who have and those who do not. Included with this story was an interesting graphic detailing San Diego's "official poverty rate" as 14.4 percent. But the quotes around "official poverty rate" are a visual double-entendre; a second graphic showed the poverty rate as calculated when cost of living is factored in. That number—21.7 percent—is the more accurate poverty rate.
Without question, it is officially devastating that more than one-fifth of San Diegans live in poverty.
But who has time to tackle that? Certainly not the city council, and not the strange coalition of businesses and environmental groups that lobbied for the water fee increases. The environmentalists were definitely on the wrong side of this decision, ignoring, as they frequently do, the reality that conservation and attention to environmental issues is a luxury of the privileged classes.
Despite the best efforts of Councilmembers David Alvarez and Scott Sherman to coax some complex thinking out of their counterparts, the poor in San Diego—which includes the elderly and the disabled—are going to be stung with each bill as water rates skyrocket 40 percent by 2019.
But fear not. This is 1 percent less than what Mayor Faulconer and the water folks had asked for. Those City Councilmembers went rogue when they didn't approve that 1 percent, citing a desire "to soften the burden on ratepayers." Isn't that nice of them? They deserve a plaque for such conscientious unburdening.
Perhaps we should hold off on a ticker-tape parade until we find out whether these burden-softeners will want that 1 percent to build a new, fandangled stadium for our horrible football team and its horrible world-populating quarterback. I wonder how much water Philip Rivers and his family of 10 use every day.
In a cruel, Shakespearean, wholly American, stick-it-to-the-little-guy, capitalistic kind of twist, this water-billing fiasco is a consequence of citizens doing precisely what was asked of us. Hundreds of thousands of us cut back on our water usage in small and big ways.
We quit washing our cars and hosing down hardscape spaces. We filled buckets while shower water warmed. We took shorter showers (some of us did anyway), did more efficient dish-and-clothes washing, more mindful teeth brushing, and lived by the if-it's-yellow-let-it-mellow rule of an earlier era.
Those with the means purchased more efficient appliances; those with lawns cut back our watering; those even better off replaced water hungry yards with drought tolerant plants.
Some of the best off among of us went ahead and gobbled up public subsidies initially intended for the little guy, and used it to replace their thirsty acreage. Rancho Santa Fe, one of the wealthiest communities in our state, received the top five incentives for landscape replacement for a total of $288,000. Many other wealthy residents there took huge grants before the Metro Water Authority put a $6,000 cap on subsidies. Even the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club—where the "initiation fee" is $50,000 and monthly dues are $5,800 per year—put a Gucci-gloved hand out and was awarded $1.6 million to make changes. In this manner, corporations drained millions of rebate dollars almost overnight.
But it was many not-rich people who made the biggest collective difference that resulted in the water wallet coming up $73 million dollar short. Oopsies!
San Diego Public Utilities claims that rate hikes could shrink or be cancelled if the drought ends or "circumstances change." But we are no fools. One need only look to the so-called energy crisis of 2000 (remember that false emergency created by illegal activity and market manipulations?) to see exactly how increased utility rates did not shrink or were not cancelled once said emergency was resolved. Of note: look for higher bills from SDG&E in the coming months as well.
And this is how the little guy—you and me and the one-fifthers—are being rewarded for our contribution to the betterment of our larger community.
Given that we live in a desert and import our water, it isn't reasonable to think we aren't going to have to pay. But Alvarez and Sherman were right to advocate for a tiered fee schedule, and their colleagues were wrong to conflate equal with equitable. Under their mandate, the burden will be disproportionately leveled on those with the least means, the same as it ever was.
We need to keep this in mind when election time rolls around and use our votes to subsidize the walking papers of certain council members.