Is There Green In Prop 1?

Which way will I vote on Prop 1?

The big issue in Shoreline this cycle is Proposition 1, the proposal that the City of Shoreline buy, separate, and operate Seattle Public Utilities’ Shoreline system, and I’ve seen arguments on both sides. What I’m curious about is whether there’s a Green aspect to this. Is there a sustainability reason to vote for or against the proposition?

Local Control For Shoreline”, a pro-prop-1 group, contends that the $40.8 million to buy and operate the system will not come from property taxes but from the water bills themselves, and that water bills won’t go up. That sounds uncomfortably close to the concept behind a ‘leveraged buyout.’ They also contend that SPU increases its rates (and 14% surcharge and 15.5% utility tax) without care for Shoreline and that those rates are high; that they want “100% of Shoreline water charges invested back in Shoreline” so we “no longer subsidize Seattle.”

They don’t mention what’s stated on the FAQ page of SPU’s website

For Shoreline customers only: Why is there a different set of rates for Shoreline customers?

In 1999, Shoreline began charging Seattle Public Utilities a franchise fee on water service SPU provides to Shoreline residents. This fee increases SPU’s costs of serving Shoreline customers, and SPU is passing this cost on directly to them as a separate item on their bills. All of the revenues from this fee are paid to the City of Shoreline. Neither Seattle nor any water customer outside of Shoreline receives a benefit from this fee.”

Shoreline Water District voted to oppose the purchase because they consider that action tantamount to a declaration that the city intends to assume the SWD without a public vote, and that it makes it unlikely there will ever be a unified utility district in N King County. “No Blank Check For Shoreline”, an anti-Prop-1 group says we simply don’t know if there’s an agreement at all, or how much it will actually cost, or anything we need to know to decide the issue.

There does seem to be a confusing, false dichotomy  between a “public” water system and a “city” water system. A city, or municipal, system IS public. It has the same incentive to keep rates low, is just as subject to electoral remedy and no more susceptible to abusive actions than any other.

Does this absorb moneys which might otherwise have been used to green the city or does it free up money for same? The Pro and Anti sides both claim their side will result in lower rates and/or taxes, or at least no increases and both claim the other will raise them.

Does this affect the system’s ability to maintain its integrity and upgrade for efficiency and quality or on the other hand, does it make the system more responsive and better able to support city citizens and goals? Again, both claim they’re better, but say it differently. Pro says it will add to the city’s ability to self-govern; Anti says it will add to the city’s ability to gouge us. Pro says the city is the obvious already-known-quantity to run the system as part of the city’s extant governmental structure; Anti says “public water systems” are better and more directly representative.

Wendy DiPeso makes a great point. “Seattle does not want to sell the SPU system. It is intended to work as a regional asset. Cutting the system apart means you have to then build water storage capacity in order to continue to provide service.” Seattle Public Utilities is indeed intended to be regional, and as with any large public institution dismantling it can only reduce its overall efficiency and raise the cost per customer. Another thing- even if we buy it and separate it where do we get the water? It’s not like we’re building our own dam or well field or installing vast rain traps, right? I can’t find a real answer, but I have to assume it’s still SPU water.

In the end, while I continue to look, I haven’t found a compelling environmental case for a vote in either direction on this issue. We’re not talking about a new water source. We’re not talking about any capital investment in the system as it stands except that required to separate the pipes from Seattle. We’re not talking about any improvement in water quality or habitat or system efficiency. We’re not talking about much at all. My overall impression is that we’re talking about renaming the exact same pie we had before, and that breaking up a renowned municipal system is dangerous and likely a bad tradeoff for nominal local control, and that the most immediate and effective way for the City of Shoreline to help its SPU customers may just be to drop the franchise fee and therefore drop our citizens’ SPU rates by the same amount.

I still haven’t entirely settled on which way I’ll vote, but I feel I need to see a clear advantage to change what we have.

Janet Way October 22, 2012 at 03:24 PM
This is a very thoughtful analysis Larry. I agree that Shoreline voters should think very carefully on this vote and what the true impact will be. The bottom line on water access is that "development should pay for development", and taxpayers should not be left holding the bag with this deal. As of now, SPU and SWD do the work, and new development pays for water improvements they require. With this "sketchy deal" Shoreline will be borrowing about $94 MILLION, which will then need to be repaid. Who will pay? You guess!
Tom Jamieson October 22, 2012 at 05:32 PM
How about the carbon footprint for the added water storage required by this unnecessary cut-and-paste?
John Behrens October 22, 2012 at 10:46 PM
The term "separation costs" in the ballot measures refers to the amputation of the existing water lines that serve Shoreline coming from Seattle. No one is certain exactly how much this separation will actually cost. To accomplish this, the plan envisions creating a new pipeline running under 145th street from Greenwood to I-5. This pipeline will run adjacent to the existing water line Seattle built to supply this area with water. How many vehicle trips will be extended and traffic jams created to pay for a project that will not lower your water bill by 1 penny? What impact will this project have on traffic heading south on I-5? How much will this all cost. Add increase gasoline usage, inconvenience to those using the traffic corridor, costs of producing unnecessary duplication of infrastructure and the numbers are staggering! The purpose of this proposition is to increase revenues for the City of Shoreline and allow developers to avoid the costs of infrastructure by shifting those costs to our water bills. Whatever revenues that SPU loses as a result of this transaction will be shifted to all the ratepayers who buy water from SPU. That is us! We are not drilling wells! Our water will come from the same place it does now and we will pay our share of whatever costs are necessary to run that system! The plan is to build in redundancy that does not improve service, quality or a reduction in rates.
Tom Jamieson October 22, 2012 at 11:08 PM
John is absolutely correct. Moreover, there is an interesting little FACT which the City conveniently stays away from. SPU's water costs represent 0% of their budget. This is because they own the water. If the City of Shoreline acquires the SPU system in Shoreline, they will have to buy the water, and it is not cheap! Check out the Breakdown of Costs on Page 6 of the Citizens SPU Acuisition Steering Committe agenda packet for their April 25, 2012 meeting: http://cityofshoreline.com/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=11196 You will see 23% ($3.4M) of the City's water budget will go to purchasing wholesale water. So when you look at SPU's surcharge and utility tax, don't fall for the City's disinformation trap. After subtracting for the water that ratepayers would have to purchase annually, there would not be much left over of that surcharge and utility tax for anything. That is why the City showed SPU's, but conveniently left out their own "where the money goes" pie chart from their full color 4 page flyer they sent out last week.


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