A Public Public Utility?
Move to buy out Peninsula’s water system faces board vote Monday.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
Water board member Alvin Edwards says local residents should own the Peninsula’s water system. “I don’t think we should be out there trying to help Cal Am, a private company, make money off of a public resource,” he says.
He’s pushing for an advisory measure on the November ballot to weigh support for a public buyout of California American Water’s local system.
“The community is saying Cal Am should be publicly owned, and I agree with them,” Edwards says. “Any system of this magnitude should be.”
His stance is surprising because Edwards typically sides with the board’s pro-development majority, none of whom support the idea of a buyout.
But Edwards wants to make one point clear: “It is not an effort to control growth by buying the water company.”
On June 20, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District board will consider moving forward with a ballot measure. But in reality, the decision will be made by one district director: County Supervisor Dave Potter.
“The people have the right to tell us, yay or nay,” Edwards says. “Call Supervisor Potter, he’s going to be the vote that swings this left or right.”
Edwards isn’t generalizing Potter’s sometime swing vote on the water board. He’s talking about a decision that was supposed to be made last month.
In May, the board was scheduled to vote on the proposed advisory measure. Three board members—Edwards, Judi Lehman and Kristi Markey—said they supported a public takeover of Cal Am. But three others—Larry Foy, Michelle Knight and David Pendergrass—said that buying out the private water system was a bad idea. Potter was absent from the meeting because of a bad back.
Ultimately, the board voted 5-1, with Foy dissenting, to continue the proposed ballot measure until the June 20 meeting, counting on Potter to break the impasse.
Potter says he’ll support a vote “as long as there is something substantive that comes out of the ballot question.”
Personally, Potter says he’s “100 percent behind public ownership of any utility.” But he says he doesn’t want to see another “emotional” advisory vote, similar to Measure B in 2002, which asked residents “Should the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District be dissolved?” Voters said yes. The district is still intact.
“I’d like to take the emotion out of the vote, and put in some substance, ask some questions about the future governance structure [of the water system], and how it will impact existing rate payers’ pocketbooks,” Potter says. “If it’s just, ‘Do you think Cal Am should be bought out? Yes or No?’ I don’t think that gives you anything of substance.”
“Now, if we’re talking about dollars, ‘Would you support a buyout of Cal Am with a cost included, funded by bonds, or an increase in your water bill of such and such,’ now that’s substantive.”
No one knows how much money a public takeover would cost.
“We don’t have an estimate,” says David Laredo, the water district’s attorney. “It would take a fair amount of effort to determine what that cost would be—anything other than that would be a wild guess. It would take a full-blown appraisal of their property and their operations.”
Should water board members decide to put an advisory vote on the Nov. 8 ballot, Laredo says, the public will be informed about the cost of a takeover.
“Experts would have to be retained to provide a full-on analysis,” he says.
Meanwhile, Monterey Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW), a group examining the buyout, is waiting for its own estimates on the takeover cost. Ron Weitzman, a spokesman for Monterey FLOW, says his group will have a preliminary appraisal of Cal Am by June 23. Weitzman says it’s being prepared by Riverside resident Robert Krieger, one of the consultants who helped residents in Montara, in San Mateo County, buy their local Cal Am system.
“The overwhelming belief is that we’d rather have some other form of ownership, other than Cal Am,” says Potter. “But another question, what is that form of ownership? The water district? A [Joint Powers Authority]? That needs to be answered. Whether all of those get on the ballot or not, we at least need some financial issues posed.
“If I’m a 30-something family of five, am I willing to pay an additional cost, personally, for making Cal Am a public water system? That’s a valuable thing to know. As much as people complain about Cal Am, and their dislike of Cal Am, are they willing to take on the personal responsibility of acquisition and repair of a dilapidated system?”