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Water District to Seek Sixth Straight Rate Hike

Citing the negative impact of its conservation success on its bottom line, as well as increasing costs, MMWD is notifying customers of a possible 6 percent rate hike.

The Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) is notifying its 185,000 customers in the coming weeks of its plans to raise water rates, a move that would mark the the agency has raised its rates.

Citing declining revenue as a result of the success of its conservation efforts, as well as rising costs on items like electricity and health insurance for its current and retired employees, the district seeks to raise its rates by 6 percent. For the district’s average user, the hike would raise the rate from a $94.44 two-month water bill to a $100 two-month bill. The district will host a workshop on the rate hike on March 29 and the board is set to consider the increase at its April 19 meeting.

“Utility increases are the norm and we’re way ahead of the curve in keeping our rate increases at a moderate level,” said Cynthia Koehler, a Mill Valley resident and the president of the MMWD board. “We have a bunch of fixed costs that don’t go down just because our customers are consuming less water, and we have to pay our bills.”

Koehler, who voted against moving forward with the increase at the board’s Feb. 16, said she supports the short-term need to raise rates but hopes the process could be slowed down to allow for recommendations from the district’s rate advisory committee, which is looking into long-term budget fixes in an effort to avoid annual rate hikes.

The district saw its revenue from water use go down nearly 14 percent in 2010-2011, and it’s projected to continue to slide this year as water consumption went down nearly 3 percent for the six months ended Feb. 1 as compared to the same period a year ago.

The decline in water sales experienced over the last four years is from a combination of “more than anticipated success with our water conservation program, the slow economic recovery from the recession and summer temperatures which were substantially lower than normal,” district officials said in a Feb. 16 staff report on the issue.

Koehler said it is important for MMWD customers to understand that while water conservation is a good thing, it negatively impacts the district’s revenue. She noted the continued suspension of the district's conservation rebate program, which allows homeowners to receive as much as $350 toward the purchase of efficient irrigation equipment. The rebate, instituted in 2007, seeks to reduce outdoor water use, which accounts for 50 percent of summer water consumption.

“The thing to compare the rate increase to is what the rate would have been if customers weren’t conserving,” she said. “Rates would have much, much higher if we had to go out and get more water. In addition, we have a staff that we have to support and it doesn’t matter have how much water you use, we still need that staff.”

Some MMWD customers said the district has had plenty of time to anticipate the continuing successful conservation efforts of its customers and budget accordingly. 

"The board has had more than enough time to change its business methods since 2006 to not have this happen over and over," said Mill Valley resident Bob Silvestri. "But in fact, nothing's fundamentally changed at all."

The district cited a number of rising costs for the rate hike, including a 15.5 increase in electricity costs due to the rise in rates from the Marin Energy Authority, as well as a 26.6 increase in health insurance premiums for its retired employees.

Another one of those increasing costs will be the pay of Paul Helliker, the district’s longtime general manager who is resigning from the position as of March 1. In a move Koehler acknowledged was “an unusual situation,” Helliker is receiving a severance package following his resignation, in addition a payout of all of his vacation and benefits. Helliker is also being kept on through December 12, 2012, as a consultant, easing the transition to a new general manager.

Helliker is due $79,645 in vacation and benefits payment on June 11, though he will be on vacation from March to June and “drawing down his vacation leave and holiday pay,” according to the agreement reached between parties. Helliker will receive $48,639 severance, the equivalent of three months of Helliker’s salary of $16,213 per month, on Dec. 18. From June 12 to Dec. 12, Helliker will be paid as a consultant at a rate of $19,131 per month, for a total of $114,786. In all, Helliker will receive $195,851 in salary and consulting fees from the district in 2012, up from his current annual salary of $189,000.

“We really wanted to keep Paul and have the benefit of his expertise for as long as possible,” Koehler said. “That was a big piece of it. He’s very well regarded, almost iconic in the water management community, and with the (agreement), we were trying to make things work for everybody.”

The rate increase would go into effect May 1. The district is sending out mailers in the next few weeks to all customers notifying them of the plans to increase rates.

Michael February 28, 2012 at 05:35 PM
“Utility increases are the norm and we’re way ahead of the curve in keeping our rate increases at a moderate level,” said Cynthia Koehler,. It is the norm for THEM! Combine this with what is written about Helliker resigning and getting a severance package? Since when does a person resign and receive a severance package? And once again the retirement benefits are a part of this problem. One immediate change the taxpayers must demand is an end to the crap of letting these people save up weeks and weeks of vacation time and then stick the taxpayers with the bill when they retire or in Helliker's case resign. In the real world most all of us have a cap. If you do not use the vacation time they give you you do not get any more until you use some. Why do we continue to allow this insanity when it comes to taxpayer money? And listen to this board director calling Helliker 'iconic'. Says a lot about how THEY feel about themselves.
Kevin Moore February 28, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Compounded the increase is about 48% over the six years. Ever since the .DOT com boom days executive salaries have been out of control. Both in the private and public sector.
Ralph February 28, 2012 at 07:39 PM
Not a critique on the author, but this article seems like it's from THE ONION. MMWD is hands-down our most delusional utility.
Claudia Ciucci February 28, 2012 at 08:57 PM
If Mr. Helliker is so valuable an employee, why has he been provided a financial incentive to resign? You don't keep an employee by giving him a raise for quitting! Any further raises in water rates need to be off-set by freezing-or lowering- the first tier usage rate, and motivating further conservation with higher rates for higher usage.
tellinit likeitis February 29, 2012 at 12:42 AM
I know people who are just regular employees of MMWD. They brag about how well they are paid as compared with how easy their jobs actually are. They also tell me about all the waste there is, like paying them time and a half for NOT working at times, sitting in a truck, etc. There is HUGE waste involved here. I am sick of paying for it and sick of hearing about it. Now I am being asked to pay even MORE, yet again??? I don't think so. Get it together MMWD. The money well has gone dry!
Susan Kirsch February 29, 2012 at 05:28 AM
MMWD, like MEA, ABAG, MTC, TAM, CMA - and nearly every other entity known by an acronym - is out of control. Greed, at the expense of the public, does not look good whether it's worn by Paul Heliker, Dawn Weiz, or Farhad Mansourian. Nor does it look good on the Boards that feed it with ratepayer and taxpayer money.
John Ferguson February 29, 2012 at 06:20 PM
I'm not saying that the MMWD is well run - I have no idea and wouldn't care to speculate. However, based upon how I see water used in this district, the rates are still too low. I would like to see a comparative analysis of management cost across multiple comparable districts to see how far out of line the MMWD cost structure is, then revise salaries and obligations to bring us in line with the norm if necessary. Raise rates and put the excess into a trust to build and maintain storage and delivery systems in line with the county growth plan. Lower rates encourage nothing but water profligacy, and this we cannot afford. Send the right messages with pricing (the only cue that consumers truly pay attention to) and revise the management structure if it's out of line. We deserve a forward thinking water management system, not one that seeks to constantly shift revenue backwards.

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