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Rishi calls for money back from San Jose Water Company

Rishi calls for money back from San Jose Water Company
November 22
10:24 2017

Saratoga City Councilmember Rishi Kumar

SAN JOSE, CA: Saratoga City Councilmember Rishi Kumar spoke at the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) Public Participation Hearing at San Jose City Hall on Nov 6 regarding San Jose Water Company’s (SJWC) request to increase rates for cost of capital Application A.17-04-001.

This meeting had PUC Commissioner Martha Guzman Aceves in attendance. The Presiding Judge was Judge Karl Bernesderfer. The meeting was attended by more than 200 irate San Jose Water customers with about 60 signed up to speak and address the CPUC.

Saratoga Councilmember Kumar, who leads the “Water Oversight Group” (WOG) – a citizen group chartered with pushing back against rampant rate increases by San Jose Water, was present early at San Jose City Hall, handing out “No more Rate Increase” stickers to the audience, along with “Water Oversight Group” sticker. Given the presence of a few elected leaders speaking at the early portion of the meeting, Councilmember Kumar decided to wait his turn towards the end.

Mayor Sam Liccardo (San Jose), Councilmember Don Rocha (San Jose), Councilmember Steven Scharf (Cupertino) and Vice Mayor Burton Craig (Monte Sereno) were the early speakers. The presiding judge closed the public hearing at 10pm unfortunately, with many still waiting to speak. Councilmember Rishi Kumar was one of the last few to speak that evening.

Kumar’s engagement with SJWC’s water rate hike issue began in August 2016 with hosting a community meeting between Saratoga citizens, San Jose Water Company and the Santa Clara Valley Water District representative when a spike in water bill was first observed.

Later in January 2017, Councilmember Kumar focused his efforts to explore removing the drought surcharge that was largely responsible for the high water bills and the community angst. The case for removal of the drought mandate and the resultant surcharge had been significantly bolstered with the generous rainfall and the significant snow pack in the Sierras back then, essentially signifying an end to the California drought. As a councilmember of Saratoga, he sent a formal request to the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) Agency board members requesting they remove the mandatory 20% drought target as part of a January 24th meeting agenda item.

Subsequently, Kumar began encouraging the board members to remove the mandate component by orchestrating an email campaign asking citizens of Saratoga to send in their views on the topic to the SCVWD board, highlighting their high water bills and its impact upon them.

After evaluating all data, the SCVWD Board removed the 20% mandatory reduction at that meeting. SJWC subsequently removed the drought surcharge with a CPUC filing. That removal was huge, as a majority component responsible for the inflated water bills was the drought surcharge.

With that simple win, Councilmember Kumar started filing a CPUC protest with every rate increase proposal that was presented by SJWC. A water information page (www.RishiKumar.com/water) was established for this explicit purpose with facts on each rate filing, along with email verbiage.

Email addresses of CPUC commissioners were available, with a simple protest framework replicated again and again for the community, sending hundreds of protest letters to CPUC and Office of Rate Payers Advocate (ORA). SJWC’s Advice letter 501 and 510 were rejected by CPUC as a result, something that had seldom been seen before. Also, CPUC initiated an investigation and audit of San Jose Water Company, which is currently ongoing.

Addressing CPUC and the ORA staff that Monday evening, Kumar expressed his viewpoints as a Councilmember of Saratoga, but not representing the city council as “the councilmembers of Saratoga had not made a collective stance on this topic.”

Rishi mentioned the windfall SJWC had made, “Here is a number. $222 million. That is the profit San Jose Water Company has made in the last 7 years.” Kumar explained that despite the community’s efforts to reduce water consumption, the water bills have not gone down; in fact, SJWC continued to raise water rates. Kumar explained that the rate hikes are not only extremely high, but have been unexplainable by San Jose Water Company.

He had reached out to SJWC multiple times for an explanation for the water rate hikes. “As a councilmember of Saratoga, I asked a SJWC staffer – why do we have so many rate increases? Why this (super high) Rate of Return (request for this Cost of Capital recover)? I was told it is capital improvement, deteriorating infrastructure. I work in the hi-tech, I am data driven, data oriented. I said, OK show me the number, where is your data, can you send me a deck, an email, can you send me anything that summarizes what you are telling me. NOTHING, haven’t heard anything yet.”

In his closing remarks he implored CPUC, “I am asking, “No more rate increase”. In fact, please reduce rates. In fact, we want cash back. Enough is enough! This is it! We have conserved and the rates have gone up. They continue to go up. We will push back any and every rate increase.”

He called on the commissioners to continue their work in auditing and investigating the SJWC, thanking the commissioners for their willingness to look into the issue, and for their past support on denying water rate increases proposed by SJWC.

You can find the compete YouTube speech at http://tinyurl.com/RishiCPUCspeech
A key outcome of the meeting was a citizen frustration converging upon a call for a new municipal utility company to replace San Jose Water Company, as against an investor-owned public utility company that San Jose Water Company is today.

California municipalities have been particularly active in reclaiming water systems. San Francisco purchased Spring Valley Water Company (SVWC) leading to the formation of San Francisco Public Utility Commission (SFPUC). More recently, California based Casitas Municipal Water District exercised eminent domain and took over operating assets of Golden State Water Company’s Ojai water system for approximately $34.5 million.

Councilmember Kumar, as the founder of WOG is in favor. WOG is seeking a way out of the endless loop of reactive protests that follow every SJWC rate increase filing, replaced with a more proactive approach where the power firmly resides with the people, and their interests are being squarely met via local leadership.

The call for a new municipal utility company might be the way out according to Kumar. “Water is going to be one of the most important challenges that Silicon Valley and many urban centers worldwide will be grappling with over the next few decades as the population continues to explode. The time to take control of our water resources is now! Let us not be at the mercy of an investor-owned utility company – we have seen the consequences.

So many rate increases have gone through this year. 15.9% to be exact, just in the first six months of 2017. Should we continue to grin and bear these rate increases? Why not a Plan B that is not based on reactive protests? Water is a public asset and should be controlled by the community. We currently have Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE), a public sector entity not driven by profits, serving 12 Silicon Valley communities, providing an alternative to PG&E. All revenues generated by SVCE are returned to the program and passed on to customers in the form of reduced rates, local clean energy projects and customized programs and rebates.

“Will SVCE impose surcharge and try to make profits? No way! Why not create such a municipal utility water system that provides much needed local control with water? It makes total sense! Santa Clara and Palo Alto already have city owned and operated municipal water utility companies which system is working very well for their residents with reasonable water rates. Why not a Silicon Valley municipal water utility company?”

It may not be easy, but has been done before. A recent LA Times story referenced 235 cities worldwide – including Paris, Budapest and Buenos Aires – in 37 countries that have taken stronger or total control of their water systems in the last five years. In the U.S., 58 cities have taken or retaken control of private systems in the period, with the pace accelerating.

Councilmember Kumar called for a coalition between the various affected cities to address this water challenge for their citizens once and for all. “Nothing is more necessary to life than water. A few cities banded together and initiated Silicon Valley Clean Energy. Can we join hands again and launch Silicon Valley Water, a municipal utility company that has the interest of its residents in mind? Yes, I truly believe so”.

The wheels are in motion already with a councilmember each from Monte Sereno, Milpitas, Cupertino and Sunnyvale joining Councilmember Kumar on the WOG board and favoring such a shift.

WOG has launched a petition requesting the councilmembers of the impacted cities for consideration of a municipal utility company. The petition has 1300+ signatures and growing daily. To subscribe and connect with the Water Oversight Group, visit http://groups.google.com/group/wateroversight and http://facebook.com/groups/wateroversight. The water petition can be found at http://www.tinyurl.com/NoMoreSJWC

Ritu Maheshwari
India Post News Service

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