" - Guest commentary by RON WEITZMAN

 

August 8 2015  
Monterey Herald, Monterey, California

Guest Commentary

Customers pay up as leaders eat up Cal Am

By Ron Weitzman

How loudly does the bell have to ring before our community wakes up, how ear-shattering the alarm before our mayors' authority and our local daily newspaper come out of their hypnotic fixation on Cal Am?

Is it not enough to know that the county brought charges against Steve Collins so that Cal Am could take Marina Coast's desal plant away from it? Whatever Collins may or may not have done, it was not the fault of Marina Coast. The choice was Cal Am's: to steal or not to steal the project. You know what the choice was. You are paying for it on your monthly bills to the tune of $36 million to cover Cal Am's cost of doing that shady business.

Is it not enough to know that the county has sold its desal ordinance to get back the money it lost on the Marina Coast project? The sale was to Cal Am, which will add that money to our monthly bills. What divine right of kings does the county possess to exempt Cal Am, and only Cal Am, from its ordinance prohibiting a private company from owning and operating a desal plant here? Our ancestors fought a revolution to free us from that sort of imperious injustice.

Is it not enough to know that Cal Am bought the allegiance of our hospitality industry by taking it off the tier system that is bedeviling the rest of us? The result: Residential customers are now paying 53 percent more per unit of water than commercial customers.

By no means does it stop there. Cal Am's desal project is now embroiled in a more virulent case of conflict of interest than the county inflicted on Marina Coast enabling Cal Am to steal its project. Hydrogeologist Dennis Williams, who both designed Cal Am's test well and leads a team to determine its success or failure, owns two patents on the test well's slant-intake design. According to a June 21 front-page Herald article, "Williams, Cal Am officials and others have rejected the notion that he has any conflict of interest, insisting that his patented technology is not being used in the project and he will not benefit financially as a result " Yet, on July 31 a Herald headline announced, "Cal Am admits to using patented technology." As if stealing and bribery are not enough, now we have lies and obfuscation. If Cal Am's slant wells prove successful, Williams' company, Geoscience, will stand to make a fortune on his patented technology.

Just when you begin to believe it cannot get worse, it does, in spades.

Now, out of the blue, Cal Am has applied to the Public Utilities Commission for a change it in its rate structure that would raise the rates by 43 percent for the 60 percent of water-conserving residential customers who are in Tier 1 while lowering the rates by 18 percent for the commercial customers who consume the most water. Although now residential customers are paying 153 percent as much as commercial customers per unit of water, the proposed change in rates (assuming they are revenue neutral) would exacerbate that discriminatory disadvantage for residents to 201 percent. No wonder the hospitality folks support Cal Am. The mystery is why any residential customers still do.

Hidden among the gems within the application is this little beauty that will not only turn your head, it will make it spin. Cal Am claims that failure to recoup immediately some $40 million of revenue authorized but uncollected since 2008 would jeopardize the funding of its proposed desal plant, particularly a scheme to save ratepayers $144 million in financing costs. Never mind that in borrowing $40 million under PUC rules ratepayers would have to pay $198 million, tacked onto their monthly bills as a $21 surcharge for 20 years, and that does not even include the taxes ratepayers would have to pay on the profit yes, profit the company would make on the deal all this regardless of whether the desal plant actually materializes.

Are the bells ringing loudly enough now?

- Ron Weitzman, president, Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula

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