Rodney Greek sat at a conference table deep in the bowels of the mayor's office, lots of pieces of paper strewn around with lots of numbers on them, showing this and that about how much San Diegans will be charged for water during the next few years and why. There was talk of “base fees” and “commodity charges,” “fixed” and “variable” costs, HCFs and whatnot. There were lists and graphs and charts.
Greek is one of those guys who know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide; he even did some calculating sans calculator to prove it. He's an accountant in the city's Water Department, and his unexpected task that day was to help me understand the new water rate structure Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed a few months back and the City Council approved last week. I needed the math class because our friends over at the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), who look out for the interests of lower- and middle-income working people, had gotten into a tussle with the mayor's staff over whether Sam and Sally Q. Public are getting screwed by the rate hike.
I wanted to get to the bottom of who was right and who was wrong, because serious matters are at stake-a mayor's reputation and all San Diegans' wallets-but I soon learned what a complicated place the world of water billing is, especially when politics comes for a visit.
Michael Shames, executive director of San Diego's Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), helped me feel a little bit better. “This stuff is very complicated and very obscure,” he told me. “I've been studying-and advocating on-utility rate applications for over 20 years. It takes a group of skilled and adequately resourced experts to dig through a utility rate increase and find the excesses. The City Council and the public had no access to such experts.”
Some recap: Sanders proposed an increase in water and sewer rates several months ago as a way to finance urgently needed repairs to the city's plumbing. I don't know of anyone who believes the city didn't need to raise revenue.
CPI's smarty-pants research director, Murtaza Baxamusa, and its new spokesperson, Susan Duerksen, fired off a confrontational press release on Friday afternoon, Feb. 23, saying Sanders wanted to charge you and me 30 percent more for a gallon of water than his friends in the business community. The Union-Tribune ran with the story Saturday morning, and the mayor's staff initiated damage control.
Bill Harris, a member of the mayor's communications team, scheduled an 11 a.m. Sunday meeting (the day before the City Council was to vote on the rate increase) with CPI. Representing CPI was Baxamusa and researcher Brandalyn Patton; for the city, it was Harris, Greek and Jim Barrett, the no-nonsense chief of the city's Water Department and a former Navy man. The session didn't go well.
Baxamusa says he wanted a meeting about numbers but instead got a meeting about politics and public relations. He says Barrett and Harris told him that if he didn't tell the press that CPI was wrong, the mayor on Monday would go on the offense and discredit CPI in a press conference. Fred Sainz, the mayor's chief spokesperson, says Baxamusa came to the meeting on the defensive and refused to provide the mathematical basis for CPI's assertions. He accuses CPI of waiting until the last minute to drop a public-relations bombshell, giving the mayor's staff no time to respond, and using unfair statistical comparisons to make the mayor look bad. Donald Cohen, the head of CPI and a veteran in San Diego politics, who was out of town while all this was playing out, says his staff wasn't so much defensive going into the meeting; a better word, he said, is “distrustful.” His team says the mayor-whose office door, Cohen charges, is always open to business lobbyists-refuses to admit that city residents are bearing a larger share of the burden of the rate increase than businesses.
It's a classic he-said-he-said, with both sides accusing the other of using statistics to manipulate the public conversation. Normally, such rhetorical jousting is fascinating only to me and a few of the people who work at 202 C St., but remember, they're fighting over your money.
I left the mayor's office, my head swirling with percentages, tiered rates and meter sizes, thinking Greek had done a pretty convincing job, his case bolstered by the support of Andrea Tevlin, the City Council's widely respected budget analyst, who hasn't shied away from opposing the mayor but signed off on the new rate structure.
But on the way back to the office, I stopped in to see UCAN's Shames, who in 2004 sued the city over unfair sewer rates and had opposed the new water rates. Shames hadn't studied the CPI analysis but said it's obvious to him that residents are being asked to shoulder a greater percentage of the rate increase than businesses. He wondered why the San Diego County Taxpayers Association had supported the proposal.
Lani Lutar, president of the taxpayers association, told me her group was convinced that the rate increase is necessary, but, as far as scrutinizing who's paying how much and why, she said the taxpayers association doesn't have the necessary expertise; it counts on groups like CPI to do the heavy lifting. She said she was disappointed that CPI waited so long to weigh in.
Shames and I had also wondered how thoroughly Tevlin's staff had scrutinized the rate increase-because it's Tevlin whom the City Council counts on for guidance in such complex matters. During the City Council meeting at which the increase was approved, Tevlin mostly discussed the need for increased revenue, but she also said her staff tried to figure out where CPI was coming from. Like Greek-who told me CPI had compared “apples to broccoli”-Tevlin said CPI seemed to be using irrelevant comparisons. This week, Tevlin told me that she, too, was disappointed that CPI didn't come forward sooner, and our conversation prompted her to ask her staff to set up a meeting with Baxamusa.
By this past Monday, I was ready to jam an ice pick into my ear and impale my brain if someone tried to explain the rate increase to me again, but I decided to soldier on. I re-watched parts of the seven-hour City Council meeting, listened to my taped interview with Greek, examined portions of the city's Water Cost of Service Rate Study and revisited Baxamusa's assertions.
I've reached a conclusion: Baxamusa isn't wrong, and I'm damn close to saying he's right. But I'm not going to tell you why, because I don't want to be held responsible for mass-suicide-by-ice-pick. I just can't deal with that kind of pressure in my weakened-by-numbers condition. You just have to trust me. Or not. Right about now, if you throw enough numbers at me, you can probably convince me that I drugged Anna Nicole Smith.
Of course, none of this matters much. The rate increase is a done deal. At the City Council meeting, Sanders followed through on his staff's threat to discredit CPI, calling Baxamusa and Co. “conspiracy theorists,” although not by name. Because Tevlin didn't raise a ruckus, the members of the City Council barely even mentioned the relative burden shouldered by residents before casting their votes.
But help might be on the way. Paragraph 12 of the legal settlement stemming from Shames' sewer-rate lawsuit against the city says the city must allow a nonprofit organization to insert solicitations into customers' water and sewer bills requesting donations to help fund independent scrutiny of future rate increases. This nonprofit would gain access to all the city's billing information and become the ratepayers' advocate.
Shames, whose UCAN was born through a similar process, doesn't know what group, if any, will step up. But he says his board of directors has authorized UCAN to do it if no one else comes forward. “I am faced with the very real possibility that no other qualified group in San Diego is prepared to take these issues on,” he told me. “I'm still hoping that some organized entity is willing to make the commitment to serve as the kind of watchdog on city utility issues as UCAN has served the region with the regulated monopolies.”
So am I.