Less hookers and blow than you would think. Tragic, really.

I love the North County Times’ water reporting.  Couldn’t tell you whether the rest of the paper is any good, but I find their water reporting to be informative and thorough, with a good eye for detail.  This op-ed in the North County Times, however, lacks their usual nuance.  It is written by a Ms. Batra, who imagines her local water authorities to be an authoritarian bunch.  I am at a loss, however, to understand exactly how their fiendish plots will work.

On the surface, Ms. Batra objects to a recent reversal of district rate policy.  She writes that the people of Encinitas were promised a lower water rate if they conserved; on getting good conservation returns, four of five (city?) councilmembers cancelled the lower rates.  (I don’t know if this is the actual story, if there were a promise to reduce rates, what the vote was, what actually happened.)   I strongly suspect the city had the same problem many districts had in the past drought.  They had a poorly designed rate structure, one that spread the costs of their capital and operating costs over the amount of water they sold.  When they sold less water, they suddenly found they couldn’t pay their fixed costs.  The PUC is trying to introduce a decoupled rate structure into water service.  The costs of district infrastructure and O&M are bundled into a fixed rate, while the costs of delivering water are a separate variable price.  This way, districts will always recoup their infrastructure and O&M costs.  Most districts aren’t on this model yet, though, and the phenomenon that Ms. Batra observes (that you conserve and then your rates go up) really pisses people off.  Telling them that they would be paying far more if they hadn’t conserved, because then they’d be paying for more water, and some of it would be even more expensive water that the district had to go buy from some one never seems to soothe anyone.  Ms. Batra has illustrated one of the common policy problems of water conservation, but it is resolvable and not emotionally intractable, like some of our other water policy problems.  That’s not really what is bugging Ms. Batra, however.

The way I read Ms. Batra, she seems preoccupied with governments abusing authority.  She uses some pretty loaded language, for starters, all about bossing people around and authority.

…the state introduced mandatory water conservation measures… …we have been nagged to death about conserving water… …rules that dictated…

She goes on to state her thesis, which is where I started laughing.

It’s pretty obvious that City Council members will cherry-pick and follow only those rules that expand government and their own power.

This is funnier for water districts, and only barely more plausible for city council members, but WHAT POWER?  How does changing a rate structure consolidate a board member’s or a council member’s power?  Even if you change the rate structure so it charges more, how does that lead to personal power for a council member or institutional power for a district or city?  On the boring legal side, a special district or a city  has listed powers from their enabling legislation.  They can tax parcels.  They can grant water service.  They can get easements for maintenance.  They have some genuine and useful powers.  But they aren’t feudal lords.  They can’t get any powers that are any fun or make their institution be more than a water district. It isn’t like a district can get so strong it can invade a neighbor, and, um, force water deliveries on their new serfs.

That’s why I don’t get Ms. Batra’s argument.  According to her, because of this rate increase, locals will pay $10 more per month, and… then what?  The locals will become relatively more impoverished, and from their diminished socioeconomic class, look with awe upon the city council members, who then get to cut in line at the movies and get the best tables in restaurants?  The increased coffers of the city (which I think will go straight back to pipe maintenance, but lets say it doesn’t) will do… what?  With the ill-gotten hoard from that rate increase, city councilmembers will be able to eminent domain anybody they want and build their castles on the best land?   If the argument is that the council members in this case act out of base power-mongering, I think the case falls apart when you get to motivation.   I know you think it is all hookers and blow for glamorous water district board members, but sadly, even craven greedy rate increases don’t score board members anything a hedonist would want.  All that heady power barely gets them a parking spot and answers to their questions in staff reports.  I don’t understand the mechanism that Ms. Batra suggests, that shafting the public with a rate increase gives them personally or their agency more power.  And I don’t understand the result, that they have more power to do some unexplained but nefarious something.  What could it be?

I’ve edited this slightly for grammar.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Less hookers and blow than you would think. Tragic, really.

  1. jroth95

    One of the highlights of my wife’s bureaucratic career was when a lawyer for a group opposed to a new historic district claimed that she was in favor of the district in order to “expand her bureaucratic power base.” His colleagues rolled their eyes and he wasn’t allowed back to any future hearings, but it’s illustrative of the bizarre viewpoint that the rightwing has injected into the national conscious: that somehow having more work to do within the same hourly and salary constraints represents a win for bureaucrats. Like how I’m always angling to take over laundry chores so as to expand my domestic power base.

  2. Nice pushback…

    I’ve written on how to solve this problem AND encourage conservation here: http://aguanomics.com/2009/05/fixed-and-variable-costs-redux.html

    Oh, and CPUC only regulates IOUS. Municipal providers can decouple at will — if they want…