The Tacoma Public Utilities so-called “Public Hearing” last week regarding raising water rates lacked proper notification.
At this point, TPU is poised to raise water rates 4% beginning on April Fools Day this year and 4% for all of 2018 for residents.
This upcoming Wednesday (Feb. 22nd), at 6:30 the TPU Board will be having their bi-monthly meeting. The public can make comment on this. Read Resolution U-10910 – it details out the water rate increases for the next two years. STW had to make a public records request for this document that should have been provided at the so-called “Public Hearing” last week so people could make a properly informed comment.
The Water Rate Policy reads in part:
“Water Rates Should Be the Product of Customer Involvement”
Contrary to the statement made by staff that having a public hearing is the first step in this process, the first step in the rate setting process was completely ignored, i.e. CUSTOMER INVOLVEMENT, as stated in TPU’s own policy. Customer involvement simply never happened in any meaningful way, and there were numerous missed or ignored opportunities to engage the public and inform the public about the proposed rate increases.
There was no notice about the Water Rate Increase Public Hearing in:
• December 2016 and January 2017 TPU Utility Bills;
• The quarterly TPU Newsletter issued in January;
• The TPU News Webpage;
• Nothing on TPU’s Facebook page about the proposed rate increases or the public hearing;
• Nothing on TPU’s Twitter account about the proposed rate increases or the public hearing;
• Nothing in the Tacoma Daily Index about the proposed rate increases or the public hearing;
• Nothing in the Tacoma News Tribune’s legal notices about the meeting;
• Nothing on the City of Tacoma Webpage listing Public Hearings (CURIOUSLY the City webpage does list an upcoming public hearing [properly set by the Council I might add] on Feb 14 about a Tacoma Water Property Sale, BUT NOTHING about the far more significant PUBLIC HEARING on THE RATE INCREASE which affects far more people and businesses);
• No mention of it at the Board Study Session on December 14, 2016 (NOTE the agenda says “Tacoma Power and Water Rates”, not “Rate Increases” … how is someone supposed to know that rate increases are what you’re considering and discussing?);
• No mention of pending rate increases or a public hearing at the Board’s regular meeting on December 14;
• No mention of it at the Board Study Session on January 11, 2017 (again, the agenda says “Tacoma Power Rates”);
• No mention of pending rate increases or a public hearing at the Board’s regular meeting on January 11, 2017;
And finally, not even a mention of pending rate increases or a public hearing at the Board’s regular meeting on January 25, 2017 nor at the City Council meeting immediately preceding the public hearing event.
Yes, an email notice did go out Friday evening at 5:27 PM, which just happened to be the beginning of Super Bowl week-end. The notice went out with the minimum notice possible, just five days before the event, sent to an opt-in list of subscribers to some kind of email notification list (which most people are not on).
Question: How many subscribers there are on that list, and thus what percentage of TPU customers received that public hearing notification email?
TPU staff attended a meeting this past Monday night before the North End Neighborhood Council.
TPU was there to make a presentation about water rates, but staff did not make it clear that that there was going to be a Public Hearing about them on Wednesday night – two days later!
TPU described at the meeting how staff was reaching out to the Neighborhood Councils. Is this what has happened at the other Neighborhood Council meetings?
Clearly there were numerous missed or ignored opportunities to inform the public about the proposed water rate increases, which was pointed out by one speaker at Wednesday’s TPU Board meeting.
Finally, the Public Hearing may not have been a proper one to begin with, much less a properly noticed one.
The TACOMA CITY CHARTER SECTION 4.11 says,
“All matters relating to … the fixing of rates and charges for utility services under the jurisdiction of the Board shall be initiated by the Board, subject to approval by the Council, and executed by the Board”.
“All matters” means just that, including a Public Hearing. Setting that hearing date was initiated by the staff, not by the Board. Since the Public Hearing on Wednesday was not called for through an action by the Board (nor the City Council for that matter as it has done for the Tacoma Water property sale hearing on Feb 14)
Clearly, the TPU Board is not following the expressed intent and language of the Tacoma City Charter.
The TPU’s Water Rate Policy references the need for a rate expert to represent residents is significant.
The role of the FCS Group hired by TPU does not represent residents … their job was to represent TPU’s interest and to substantiate the highest rate that TPU can get away with, NOT what is in the best interests of the residential class.
The Board needs to work with the City to retain an independent rate expert to do the job of representing the interests of residents, not TPU’s.
The Board needs to give proper consideration to these concerns and requests and insist the staff conduct a robust and meaningful customer involvement process in the rate setting process as called for in the Water Rate Policy.
TPU and the City should start all over to properly engage ratepayers in substantive and proactive public notice processes on issues like this which are of such paramount importance to the many thousands of households in our city, and our struggling families and businesses.
The citizens of Tacoma own the water, they should be treated like owners, not mushrooms being kept in the dark.