Ratepayers sue City of Davis over water rates

A class action lawsuit was filed against the City of Davis on Jan. 30, alleging that the city does not charge itself for water used at city-owned facilities. As a result, ratepayers are paying for their water usage along with the city’s. The lawsuit also states that the city’s current and proposed water rates for ratepayers are illegal.

The plaintiffs are the Yolo Ratepayers for Affordable Public Utility Services and John Munn, the former president of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association. They are represented by Michael Harrington, an aviation and maritime attorney who is a former Davis City Council of member.

“The lawsuit alleges that the current and two proposed water rates violate the proportionality requirement of Proposition 218,” Harrington said.

According to Harrington, the suit has not been served, but will be soon. The date is still undetermined.

Prop. 218, which was passed in 1996, states that a ratepayer cannot be charged more than the cost of supplying water to their property. The plaintiffs are asking the court to require the city to start paying its own water rates. Additionally, they want to dispose of the current and proposed rate structures and adopt a rate that is legal under Prop. 218.

“It has come to our attention that the city has not been doing that [paying water rates] and we believe that it is important to take the necessary legal steps to ask the court for assistance, because so far the city government has not been responsive to our requests [to] protect the interests of all ratepayers,” Harrington said.

The lawsuit also asks for the city to establish a common fund from general fund money for people who have been overcharged and want refunds.

The city admitted in a statement that it does not pay for its water rates, but has not commented on the rest of the lawsuit.

According to the city statement, “the city does not separately account for water used at city facilities, [but] the city also does not charge the water division rent for its use of city park space where some wells are located, and the reimbursement of other city services and facilities is overdue for reconciliation and an update.”

It also said that over the past few years, the city council has been trying to find a way to fund water used at city facilities and determine what is a reasonable rate to charge the water division of city park space and other city services and facilities.

Harriet Steiner, the city attorney, said that she believes the city’s rates are legal and comply with Prop. 218. Steiner said the city is working to make sure that the water the city uses is attributed fairly.

The city statement also said that the city consumed $778,000 worth of water in 2012, mostly for irrigation. However, only 85 percent of city facilities tracked their water usage with water meters.

Davis city officials said that since 2010 they have been in the process of tracking their water consumption, but Bob Clarke, the city’s interim public works director, said that the process has slowed recently. He also said that the city has allotted money for the 2013-14 fiscal year to pay for its water consumption.

“The majority of meters have been addressed, but there are still some of the larger, more labor-intensive connections to be done,” Clarke said.

Harrington based his lawsuit on a similar case in Sacramento in 2010, in which the city had been charging itself for only 15 percent of its overall water consumption. After the suit was filed, Sacramento city officials admitted to this, and it took three years to get the city to comply and pay for its total water usage.

“I think the city’s explanation is flat-out unbelievable and false, and the case will demonstrate that,” Harrington said.

PAAYAL ZAVERI can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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