Faced with 'uncertainties,' Palo Alto considers raising water rates
Original post made
on Apr 11, 2014
Palo Alto's plan to give the city's water customers a rare reprieve from rising rates has been jeopardized by an unexpected spike in the cost of replacing aged mains, according to Utilities Department officials.
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posted Friday, April 11, 2014, 9:18 AM
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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 15, 2014 at 9:35 am
City employee Debra Katz claims:
> We are a community-owned utilities operation
This is not strictly true. The Utility is wholly owned by the City of Palo Alto, which is a Municipal Corporation. The community does not "own" the Municipal Corporationwhich exists as an entity under State Law. The Municipal Corporation owns the Utility. The Community has very little to say about its operation, under the current City Manager form of government. The Community can elected nine Council Members, but history has shown that they have exercised very little oversight of the Utility since the end of the Council/Commission form of government, in 1950.
Government claims about "community ownership" simply are not true. Government owns the Utility.
> our documents are public
I have been denied access to some Utility documents via Public Information Requests.
> You better believe our founding father's goal of cheaper,
> HIGHER QUALITY utilities has worked out...in spades.
This is truly a bizarre statement. The use of the phrase "founding fathers" is generally restricted to the "founding fathers" of the United States of Americanot the City of Palo Alto. The City's owning the local utility is bound up in the history of the so-called Progressive Era/Movement which ran from the 1880s until about 1920. Ownership of municipal utilities was a mantra of the Progressiveswho were fiercely anti-Corporate, at the time.
There were private utilities operating here in Palo Alto before the City decided to assume ownership of all of the distribution facilities. The people who were pressing for municipal ownership offered many argumentsmost of which revolved around the cost of the utility "products", not the "quality". Between 1900 and 1910, water, gas and electricity were being provided by vendors from outside of Palo Alto. Telephone and Telegraph services were also provided by outside sources.
Those promoting municipal ownership were concerned about the cost of service, not the "quality". ("Quality" would mean reliability, presumably. There doesn't seem to be any claims of numerous service interruptions by the private vendors, by the way.)
The Charter language, adopted in 1909, went to great ends to set the stage for Municipal Ownership of just about every human activity in the City:
9. To acquire, construct, maintain and operate all
necessary works for the supplying of the city and its in-
habitants with water, light, heat, power, telegraphic and
telephonic communication, and for the conveyance of
passengers and freight over, under and upon public
streets and rights of way secured therefor; to fix rates
for all commodities furnished or services rendered, and
to dispose of commodities produced or render service in
connection with such works outside of the boundaries of
10. To improve the rivers, streams, bays, inlets and
channels flowing through the City or adjoining the same ;
to widen, straighten and deepen the channels thereof,
and remove obstructions therefrom ; to control and im-
prove the water front of the city ; to construct and main-
tain embankments and other works to protect the City
from overflow ; and to acquire, own, construct, maintain,
and operate on any lands bordering on any navigable
bay, inlet, river, creek, slough or arm of the sea, within
the limits of the City or contiguous thereto, wharves,
chutes, piers, breakwaters, bath houses and life saving
11. To establish and change the grade and lay out
open, extend, widen, change, vacate, pave, re-pave, or
otherwise improve all public streets and highways and
public places, construct sewers, drains and culverts, to
plant trees, construct parking, and to remove shrubs and
weeds ; to levy special assessments to defray the whole or
any part of the cost of such works or improvements.
Also to provide for the repair, cleaning and sprinkling
of such streets and public places.
12. To acquire, construct and maintain all works
necessary for the disposition of sewage, garbage and
waste; and to define and abate nuisances.
13. To establish and maintain hospitals, indigent
homes, and all other charitable institutions.
14. To acquire and maintain parks, play-grounds,
theaters, and places for recreation, and to establish boule-
vards and regulate traffic thereon.
15. To acquire and maintain markets, baths, and
16. To establish and maintain schools, libraries,
museums, gymnasiums, and to do all things to promote
the education of the people.
17. To equip and maintain a fire department and to
make all necessary regulations for the prevention of fires.
18. To acquire, construct and maintain all buildings
necessary for the transaction of public business.
19. To exercise the right of eminent domain for the
purpose of acquiring real and personal property of every
kind for any public use.
20. To grant permits to use the streets or public
property, revokable at any time without notice.
21. To regulate and establish rates and charges to be
imposed and collected by any person or corporation for
commodities or services rendered under or in connection
with any franchise, permit or license heretofore or here-
after granted by the town or city or other authority.
22. To exercise such other powers as are now or
may be hereafter granted by the legislature to the munici-
palities within the state unless the exercise of such powers'
is contrary to the provisions of this charter.
23. To exercise all other needful powers for the effi-
cient adminstration of the municipal government, whether
such powers are herein expressly enumerated or not.
24. Lastly, this grant of power is to be liberally con-
strued for the purpose of securing the well being of the
municipality and its inhabitants.
Source: 1909 City of Palo Alto Freeholder's Charter
From reading through this 1909 Charter language (found in the section labeled "Powers of the City"), it's pretty clear that those who fashioned what is called the "Freeholders' Charter" (1909) were intent on making the City a place where private enterprise was not very welcome. Given that twelve of the fifteen members of the Freeholders' Committee were actually prominent businessmen, it's somewhat difficult to understand their intentions about giving the City Government so much power.
The Freeholders' Charter did, on the other hand, create citizens' commissions, which were the effective management of the operating departmentswith department heads reporting to citizen-run committees for the next forty years.
The main purpose of City ownership, based on the reading of historical documents and newspapers of the time, was to run the private companies out of town, and to be the one, and only, service provider of virtually all of the core utility services needed by the residents.
This mindset lasted until the late 1930s, when the City realized that it could not continue to provide water to its residents from the artesian wells that had been providing water since the early days (ca. 1890). At that time, it started buying water from San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy source. Growth of the city also brought its ability to generate electricity locally to an end, and in the late 1930s/early 1940s, the City began buying power from PG&Ea corporate entity that the so-called "founding fathers" had vilified. The City continues to purchase power from sources outside its boundaries todayalthough its anti-corporate rhetoric is somewhat lower than in the early 1900s--particularly since it must use PG&E transmission lines to ferry power to Palo Alto.
As to the use of "spades" in justify the seizure of private property (use of eminent domain to seize PG&E infrastructure during the annexation of Mayfield, starting around 1925), this may be the view of the employees of the City's Utilitybut it's not clear that it's the view of everyone concerned. (PG&E certainly did not feel it was compensated appropriately at the time.)
It's a shame that Utility Personnel can not stick to facts, rather than interjecting personal opinion under the Seal of Authority.