The Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) board voted 4-1 Monday night to approve a 4 percent water rate increase, effective June 1 and reflected in bills starting on August 1.
While generated fireworks between the board and assembled protestors, the major drama at last night’s sparsely attended meeting occurred between two of the directors.
The lone director to vote ‘no’ on the increase was Larry Russell, representing southern Marin and one of two directors up for reelection next year. He took the meeting by surprise when he read a formal statement of his position:
“A rate committee has been established and we are in the midst of reviewing and establishing our new policies on the structure of the rates. We are also in the midst of reviewing and establishing our current budget and financial status, and I believe that this decision on a rate increase should be pushed back until we have completed those evaluations. In my opinion we are making a rush to judgment. Have we fully explored all aspects of expenses and the need for a rate increase? And lastly, my most serious concern is that we are sending the wrong message to the public, and that message is that MMWD is immune from the recession.”
That brought scattered applause from the audience but a rebuke from director David Behar, who took Russell to task for perceived grandstanding.
“Larry, I’m disappointed to hear you say it’s a rush to judgment,” said Behar. “I think that’s a ludicrous statement. This has been the slowest [Proposition] 218 process we’ve had since I’ve been on the board. It’s been delayed a month. I’ve never heard word one from you that you were uncomfortable with where we were going. I think it is incumbent on you to express your discomfort at a place other than the day we’re actually voting on the thing.”
Behar argued that a 4 percent increase was modest at a time when the price of water is going up across the state and beyond.
“The evidence is clear that this is the most moderate rate increase of virtually any water district on the West Coast right now," Behar said. "Portland right now is looking at a 12.9 percent increase. We’ve seen double-digit rate increases in many, many water districts. The 4 percent is quite low and even then we’re not—the operating reserves are building up a little bit but we’re not out of the woods at all.”
Director Armando Quintero put the rate hike in historical terms.
“I looked at historic pricing in constant dollars,” he said, “and actually, if you look at what we’re paying for water today, we’re paying less for water today than we did in 1990. My dad had a gas station. In 1972 a gallon of gas cost 32 cents. If you roll that forward in terms of how we’re paying for water, today we’d be paying 50 cents for a gallon of gas.”
Quintero said he realized times were tight, but in the broader perspective, water is still very cheap. “You get 75 flushes for a dollar,” he said.
Then he stumped the audience with a question. “Can anybody in this room tell me how much water you get for a dollar? What’s interesting is, how can you talk about the value of water if you don’t know how much water you buy for a dollar. For a dollar you get 220 gallons. If this rate increase goes in, you’ll get 211 gallons for a dollar. And this water is probably better quality than the bottled water people are buying. So I would suggest that water—even with this rate increase—is still an extraordinary bargain.”
Several members of the audience asked the board to restore conservation incentives, so that cuastomers who use less water will be rewarded for doing so with a lower bill.
“I agree with that—it needs to be our priority," board member and Mill Valley resident Cynthia Koehler said. "We’ve had to make some painful choices this year but certainly it’s my priority and I believe (that of) my colleagues as well. We do have a rate committee that’s looking at how we can be restructuring so that we can cover those costs. And at the end of the day, conservation is going to be essentially our new water supply.”
Board President Jack Gibson said he saw himself as a hawk on rate hikes and said he'd voted against more rate increases than those he supported.
"It’s never an easy thing to do, and I take it deadly serious," he said. "I’m going to vote for this rate increase primarily because it is only 4 percent and I am confident that we are in a fiscally sensitive situation right now and it would be irresponsible, I feel, if I didn’t. While I agree with director Russell’s comment that it is sending a bad message, it is unfortunately a message I’m forced to feel we have to send.”
He did, however, assert his determination to move to a one-year budget instead of the current two-year budget, and increase the amount of time the board spends looking at budget matters to make sure that all that can be done is being done to keep rates as low as possible.