Crucial March 19 Board Meeting Starts Fee Deluge
Tell MMWD: Slow Down. Come Up with a Better Plan!
An Unexplained Last-Minute Large Meter Exemption
San Anselmo Council Critical of Plan and Process
CO$T Director Premo Offers a Better Proposal
After a two week postponement, Marin Municipal Water District Directors vote Tuesday, March 19, to send official notices of its plans to put a big, new, annual capital maintenance fee (CMF) on your next tax bill AND send a sizable invoice to already-struggling public school districts.
Water rates will also go up over 4% annually for 4 years (17% total).
Reason for the Delay: A new draft plan appeared right before the scheduled March 5 Board vote to approve mailing the official notices. It contained an important, unexpected, new provision. Board President Larry Bragman stated he'd just been handed the new draft and could not vote to approve something he hadn't read and reviewed thoroughly. Kudos to Bragman. The board agreed to a two week delay.
What Sneaked into the Latest Draft: Private fire service lines (typically serving large building hydrants and sprinklers) would be exempt from paying the CMF. This exemption appeared in a single sentence inserted in the lengthy draft text. The CMF was already skewed to fall disproportionately on single-family homeowners who use little water. To what extent does the new exemption make that worse? Why the exemption, and why now?
On March 7 we emailed our usual contact at the District inquiring about the rationale for the exemption. We also requested a list of the 1300 customers who benefit from this exemption and the size of their meters (so we can calculate the foregone CMF revenues) To date, the only reply we've received is from the legal department informing us that on March 29 we will be informed whether the District possesses relevant documents and when they might be made available.
Meanwhile, San Anselmo Council Chastizes MMWD's Plan and Process. MMWD is making the rounds of city councils, business groups, and two public workshops to drum up support for their CMF plan. While council feedback isn't binding, it can be influential. This should have been done while designing the plan. San Anselmo Council wasn't pleased. Council member John Wright stated he'd personally support a delay and rethinking of the proposal. All five Council members chimed in with concerns:
- Ford Greene : "What you're promoting is a very substantial increase that will dramatically impact a lot of people." "They can't operate in the dark and expect us to pick up the cost." Importantly, Greene also questioned whether the proposed fee can go on property tax bills without voters' approval.
- Brian Colbert: "The public process around this has been very challenging."
- Kay Coleman: "I can't believe they do not have records, or video, or some way for people to see what's gone on." .... "As a senior citizen, I have no idea what is the size of my pipe." [Most people don't know how big a fee they'll be billed, and it's hard for some senior citizens to afford.]
- Matt Brown: "I'd be concerned about putting it on the tax bill and hiding it there. Our tax bill is getting very crowded." [San Anselmo's chances of passing a parcel tax to renovate Memorial Park may be adversely affected by MMWD's new fee appearing on tax bills.]
- John Wright: "More consideration should be given to people who are good conservers.... The public process wasn't as robust as it could have been, given the magnitude [of the fees] of what's being proposed."
San Anselmo (unlike MMWD) videotapes and promptly posts all Council meetings. To view the portion related to MMWD at the March 12 Council meeting click here and fast forward to the one hour mark.
Paul Premo Has a Better Idea. CO$T Director Paul Premo, who has extensive experience as a consultant to regulated utilities, suggests an alternative to the current CMF proposal. Paul's plan would apportion the fee more fairly (lessen the burden on homeowners, particularly those who conserve water) while guaranteeing the district a consistent revenue stream to fund capital improvements. A pause in the process, for a rethinking like that advocated by San Anselmo Council Member John Wright, would provide the opportunity to develop a more equitable, balanced plan such as the one Paul proposed. Read about Paul's better idea in his recent letter to the Marin IJ.
Nonetheless, MMWD's Board appears poised to approve moving the current plan forward at its March 19 meeting. The District seems determined to place the new capital fee on property tax bills for the July 1 tax year. Doing so means notices must be sent to ratepayers shortly, informing them of a May 14 hearing at which the Board will vote on final approval for placing the new CMF on property owners' tax bills plus 4% annual increases in water bills over the next four years.
Tell MMWD’s board to PAUSE and consult with the community on a better plan. Speak up at MMWD’s board meeting, 7:30PM, Tuesday March 19, 220 Nellen Avenue, Corte Madera. If you can’t make it, email your concerns to the board (and copy us at CoalitionTaxpayers@gmail.com):
Jack Gibson email@example.com
Armando Quintero firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Bragman email@example.com
Larry Russell firstname.lastname@example.org
What’s Wrong with MMWD's Fee and Process? Keep reading!
Putting on the tax bill a big new water fee that’s not tied to water use is unfair to those who have conserved and places further pressure on homeowners struggling to stay in their homes.
MMWD highlights that the proposed new fee starts at "only" $163.50 yearly for most homeowners. But one-fifth of homeowners will pay an even heftier annual fee that starts at $408.74. The fee is slated to rise up to 4% annually.
Very troubling impact on schools and municipalities. San Rafael School district’s annual bill will start at around $300,000. This will roughly double their total yearly outlay to MMWD and could cost SRSD several teaching positions. Tamalpais Union High School District, which has been forced to cut teaching positions owing to financial woes, might need to make further cost cuts to pay the new capital fee.
MMWD's new fee on the property tax bill could also crowd out school districts' efforts to renew or expand school parcel taxes. Cities in need of more revenue for parks, roads, or other vital services may find that the property tax bill is already too crowded and voters reject the tax measures.
Too much hurry, too little consultation. Regrettably, the District, while working internally on this proposed fee for some time, largely failed to consult the community regarding the project priorities or the fee’s magnitude, design, and distribution among ratepayers. School districts and city councils were in the dark, as were homeowners who will bear most of the brunt. A Citizens Advisory Panel wasn’t convened until late December 2018, leaving no time to produce a thorough report.
MMWD customers who will pay the bills were not formally represented on the panel. Residents who would prioritize fire prevention in the watershed--some of whom might be willing to pay even more for that security--weren't given a chance to weigh in. The result is a proposal that isn’t ready for prime time. Tell MMWD to slow down and get this right.
New fee hits homeowners hard, especially water savers. The capital maintenance fee--which is based on the size (flow size diameter) of each customer’s water meter, and without any recognition of individual customers’ water usage--falls heaviest on small water users. Small meter size MMWD customers (most of which are single family home occupants) will pay 78% of the fee while currently consuming only 58% of the District’s water output. The fee isn’t tied to consumption at all.
Water conservers will see the biggest annual percentage increase in the amount they pay to the water district. The 11th hour insertion into the CMF plan of an exemption for private fire lines could make the disproportionate burden of the CMF on homeowners even worse. Ratepayers should demand that some or all of the new fee be tied to water consumption.
New fee on the tax bill isn’t transparent. MMWD hasn’t provided any logical reason for not putting the fee on water bills, where we can see how much the invoice goes up. Marin County charges MMWD (=us) to bill via the tax roll. We have asked how much this will cost but have not gotten an answer from the District.
Ratepayers should demand that any new fee be on the water bill.
Financial need and alternatives haven’t been publicly aired. MMWD says the sharp jump in its push for more money ties largely to a planned move entirely away from bonds (which spread financing costs over time) to having current customers pay entirely for replacing long-lived assets and updating systems. Independent financial experts (many live in our community) weren’t consulted on this approach. A blended financing approach that includes bond financing would spread the burden of paying for 100+ year assets more fairly over generations of ratepayers.
Cost reductions might lessen the CMF. It’s worth evaluating to what extent MMWD needs more money because of rising benefits and expenses. MMWD’s total compensation (including benefits) now averages nearly $200,000 annually per full-time employee. How much could be saved by renegotiating labor contracts (including rich healthcare insurance benefits for retirees); putting in place caps on starting salaries of new hires; and ending the unusual practice of very part time board members accepting fully paid, tax-free healthcare insurance? Does the district have a good plan to “ring-fence” the new operating fees to ensure they aren’t subsidizing rising operating costs?
Ratepayers should demand MMWD tap financially savvy community members to vet the district’s entire capital fee plan.
Process marred by ongoing poor transparency. MMWD has repeatedly rebuffed, without good reason, constituents' requests that the District video and post board meetings; other similarly sized Marin jurisdictions do. Staff reports and PowerPoint presentations are often unavailable to the public prior to those meetings (nor posted online after the fact). Public complaints about these shortcomings have not produced any change. Meetings of standing committees (e.g., finance, communications, operations, etc.) are similarly deficient on transparency.
Ratepayers must demand improved transparency: MMWD should videotape all board and committee meetings with closed captions for the hearing impaired. They should post 72 hours in advance all staff reports and presentation materials.