By Royal Calkins
As campaign season approaches, expect to hear often from the Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association warning voters about the perils of publicly owned water and the wisdom of continuing to buy our water from a profit-making company owned by who knows who.
Do not be fooled. Unless you are a bigwig in the hospitality industry, the Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association cares about your taxes about as much as Donald Trump cares about the common good.
Since its formation a half century ago, the association has gone through various iterations. At times, it has provided some legitimate input about local governance and how it is financed. It had a fair amount of credibility while being led by Ron Pasquinelli, a tremendously nice fellow who died last summer and who wasn’t a kneejerk opponent of any project that might add a penny to the public tax burden.
Today, however, the association is headed by Rick Heuer, a marketing consultant for the hospitality industry. In case you haven’t been following along, the hospitality industry locally is in league with the Peninsula’s primary water purveyor, California American Water. In return for sweetheart pricing arrangements, the hotel boys agreed several years ago to support Cal Am’s effort to create a desalination plan. Those discounted rates, they’re for industry, not for everyone.
Note that I mentioned Cal Am’s effort to build a plant and not the plant itself. The utility company is in the sweet position of being guaranteed that its local ratepayers, you and me, will pay for the process no matter the outcome plus a profit margin of 10 percent for Cal Am’s shareholders. It hardly matters to Cal Am whether the long-delayed plant ever gets built as long as the customers are paying the costs of planning, engineering, public relations, litigation, design, redesign, re-engineering, more public relations, more litigation, etc., etc. — plus 10 percent. An actual desalination plant remains a distant dream but you’re already paying for it. Plus 10 percent.
Remember the San Clemente Dam that used to block the Carmel River. After letting the reservoir behind it silt up to the point of worthlessness, Cal Am wisely tore it down. You and I paid for that work, and will continue to pay for it forever. Plus 10 percent.
In recent years, the Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association has been led by Pasquinelli, hotel broker Sam Teel and, now, Heuer. Teel once served as chairman of the Monterey County Hospitality Association, Cal Am’s leading cheerleader, an association whose members have much to gain when Cal Am decides how to divvy up its expenses between commercial and residential interests. Nice guy, Sam, but not one to alienate the industry in which he made his living.
I first encountered Heuer a couple decades ago when Century Cinemas proposed to build a theater at Del Monte shopping center in Monterey. It was a popular project but it met a degree of resistance from some area residents. Heuer led the opposition, making it out to be a grassroots neighborhood thing. But according to Fred Meurer, Monterey’s city manager at the time, the group was actually a creation of a competing theater chain.
In a recent commentary in the Monterey Herald, Heuer went on and on about the awfulness of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which would take over the Cal Am operations if the upcoming ballot measure succeeds in forcing a public takeover. Heuer ignores the district’s successes and paints it as unworthy.
He raises legitimate points in the debate over whether government or private enterprise is better equipped to operate public utilities. But he also lapses into some serious disingenuousness.
For one thing, he fails to mention that the ballot measure would put the water district in charge of Cal Am operations here only because some public entity has to be in charge. Backers of the takeover measure wisely figured it was more efficient, and cheaper, to go with an existing structure than start a new one.
He also ignores the fact that the water district is governed by an elected board that answers to the voting public. If the board isn’t steering in the right direction, it can be replaced. Cal Am has been steering in the wrong direction for decades, leaving the Peninsula with terribly expensive water and not enough of it.
Heuer brings up Public Water Now, the group behind the takeover move, and writes, “Something else Public Water Now never mentions is the fact that the tiered water rates we pay today under Cal Am are, in fact, an invention of the Water Management District. The district was deeply involved in creating the system that charges large users ten times the amount for a unit of water a small user pays. We’ve all seen the effect this has when a water leak occurs.”
There are a couple of problems with that. First, Heuer makes it sound as though tiered water rates are a bad thing and that Public Water Now objects to them and blames Cal Am. In fact, Public Water Now’s leadership has long recognized the wisdom of tiered rates because they encourage conservation. The more water you use, the more you pay on a per-unit basis.
Heuer knows that some of the opposition to Cal Am’s continued presence stems from its high prices but he also knows that the tiered pricing structure has become almost universal in California. Trying to make it sound as though Public Water Now is trying to mislead us on that subject is, well, misleading and then some.
As this ballot measure proceeds through the system, here’s some advice. When you hear or read about the impact the measure would have, consider the source and what the measure means to it financially. Cal Am has limitless profits at stake. The taxpayer association has all those business connections at stake. Unlike them, Public Water Now has no financial incentive to distort the truth. Cal Am and the taxpayer group will tell you it is all so very complicated. It really isn’t.
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