By Richard Colman
Water rates for Orinda residents and businesses are going up massively.
On July 11, 2017, the directors of the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) voted 6 to 1 to raise water rates. A 9.25 percent increase will take place from July 2017 to June 2018. Between July 2018 and June 2019, there will be another rate increase of 9.0 percent.
Thus, in a two-year period, water rates will be going up by 19 percent.
How can this happen?
Water rates are set by EBMUD’s board of directors. The board is free to raise rates to any level. If the board wants to raise rates 50 percent, 80 percent, or 300 percent, it has the power to do so.
EBMUD supplies water to much of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
The board has seven directors. Representing Orinda, Piedmont, and a portion of Oakland, is Marguerite Young. She was elected to the board in 2014. Her terms expires on Dec. 31, 2018. Young’s district is called Ward 3. Young voted for the 19 percent rate hike.
The board’s one dissenting vote came from John Coleman, whose district includes Lafayette, Alamo, Walnut Creek, Danville, Blackhawk, and portions of Pleasant Hill and San Ramon. Coleman’s district is called Ward 2. Coleman was elected to the board in 1990. His current term expires on Dec. 31, 2018.
In a telephone interview, Coleman said that the 19 percent rate hike was too high. He complained that the rate hike puts an enormous burden on individuals living on fixed incomes. Coleman said that instead of raising rates, the EBMUD board should have put a bond measure on the ballot. With a bond measure, voters can decide whether to approve or reject a rate hike.
A bond measure, if passed, would mean that local property taxes would go up. However, individuals who itemize their federal tax returns can now deduct state and local taxes from their gross income. The Trump administration wants to eliminate this deduction, but Congress may not agree to support the administration.
Coleman noted that the 19 percent rate increase is far above the rate of inflation. Between July 2016 and July 2017, the inflation rate, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 1.7 percent.
Coleman conceded that EBMUD’s infrastructure needs improvement, adding that he was “very frustrated” by the size of the rate hike. EMBUD, he said, needs to save money. EBMUD employees, he said, are paid very well.
According to Young, there is no check on the ability of EBMUD’s board of directors to raise rates. A proposed rate increase, she said by telephone, does not have to go to another body for approval.
The only way to stop a rate increase is to vote out of office any EBMUD director who supported an increase.
Eighty percent of California’s water is used by agriculture. Much of this water is subsidized by payments from the federal government. The Environmental Defense Fund has argued that eliminating this subsidy will leave California with plenty of water and eliminate the need to build more water-storage facilities. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate the subsidy. They were unsuccessful.