Comments on just-concluded Oxnard Utilities Panel by Alternate Member

By Steve Nash

Steve Nash

(Editor’s note: Utilities Panel alternate, 2016 member, retired Wastewater employee and community activist Steve Nash comments on the just-concluded activities of the Panel).

As we head into the fifth meeting of the URAP (Utility Ratepayers Advisory Panel) I have a few thoughts on the process. I was selected as a residential alternate but will have the opportunity to sit in for Chairman David Littell. First, the use of alternates should be eliminated for future iterations of the URAP. Expand the Panel to nine or eleven members, if we must,  but don’t ask alternates to do all of the reading, research and meeting attendance without giving them an actual opportunity to vote on the options. Indeed, if we fail to conclude the process Wednesday night, I will probably resign. The URAP process was not meant to be an open-ended commitment of members’ time and energy.

Which leads to the second observation, the Panel has largely supported Mr. Aaron Starr’s requests for additional information from staff. It is my understanding that those requests have been mostly fulfilled, including an “unlocked” wastewater rate model. The Panel’s support for Mr. Starr’s request is based on an interest for maximum transparency and public access to the arcane data and formulations revealed in the spreadsheets. Mr. Starr has spent considerable time and effort to parse out the details hidden within the spreadsheet which is quite admirable. His financial acumen is unquestioned. It is my opinion that questions involving the rate-setting process and how the assumptions are made should be answered by staff and their consulting team. The City should strive to incorporate best management practices and utilize industry standards in any utility rate model and the public should be informed about those decisions and allowed to “buy-in” to the final model, although ultimately, it is still the City Council’s decision.

However, it is way beyond the URAP’s mission to do a line-by-line analysis of the rate model. I agree with Assistant City Manager Ruth Osuna when she states the following, “ . . . the proposed rates are driven, primarily, by the financial requirements to meet bond covenants and other contractual obligations to protect the letter of credit and avoid further erosion of the wastewater fund’s or the City’ overall financial position. Secondly, the proposed rates also are meant to meet financial policies that the City Council has adopted. Therefore, the items that may vary can include how aggressive the CIP can be in a five year period  ($68m, $83m, $122m); full or partial implementation of the IUF; or meeting reserves in 3, 4 or 5 years. O&M costs are locked in. Those costs/expenses have been thoroughly vetted through a zero-based budgeting process. They cannot be changed.  And, quite frankly are out of the purview of the URAP. And, debt service is locked in (City needs to pay amount due annually according to previously agreed terms). That cannot be changed.”

And Mr. Starr needs to understand this; questioning the algorithms and the assumptions to arrive at a conformity with industry standards is fine. Second-guessing the design engineers’ plans for infrastructure repair, rehabilitation and replacement is not. It is not in the URAP’S wheelhouse as we are lay people, not wastewater experts.

The third observation is that future URAP’s should follow the Chairperson/Facilitator model. Time is valuable and it should not be wasted on deliberating the structure of the Panel.

My fourth and final observation is that we are skating on extremely thin ice when it comes to the condition of our wastewater infrastructure. The plant tours really only skim the surface. Things are much worse than this casual visual inspection reveals. We are risking not only the health and safety of plant personnel but also the health of our community if spills and overflows of raw sewage occur and the massive fines that would result from such spills and infrastructure failures.

Best,

Steve Nash

2-20-17

 

2-23-17 Follow-up

I said during the fifth and final meeting that much of the URAP process should have been performed by the city council themselves. I stand by that statement. What good is it if the URAP members have a better and more comprehensive understanding of the wastewater utility, rate model and public discontent than our elected officials? They are the decision-makers. They are the ones that will need to interact with the residents. If the council expects the URAP members to now go on a “goodwill” tour to garner public buy-in of our recommendation, they are sadly mistaken. Over the course of five meetings, one plant tour and close to twenty hours of presentations and discussions, not to mention the time to read and understand the documentation, we have fulfilled our end of the bargain. Now it is time for the council members to step up and do their jobs.
I also want to thank the members of URAP for doing a wonderful job, especially Chairman Littell and acting Chair Lindholm. We never went off the rails too bad and we ended up with a well-discussed and thoroughly vetted recommendation. We have lain the groundwork for successful iterations of this type of advisory group. I sincerely hope staff has listened to us and subsequently incorporated our ideas and suggestions into how they handle this Proposition 218 process in the future. If we have improved staff/resident interaction then I will be satisfied with the results of my time and commitment to URAP.   

Steve Nash is a Planning Commissioner in the city of Oxnard.  He holds a B.A. in  Environmental Studies from U.C. Santa Barbara


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