Another View: Water agency must learn to live within ratepayers’ means

Another View
By: Ben Mavy
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I was elected to the Placer County Water Agency Board in 2008. It was a tough election. Many people in my district were simply fed up with perceived wrongs of PCWA. Many people felt slighted, some abused, others mistreated and a few simply felt the agency lacked leadership. My strongest showing at the polls came from precincts that receive water from PCWA. It’s probably safe to say that most water customers feel PCWA rates are too high, and they resent the fancy new buildings and vehicles the agency always seems to have. There is something really wrong with Placer County Water Agency, but it’s not what most people think. Our general manager is a gifted and experienced leader, and he’s assembled an equally capable staff to handle the agency’s affairs. Unfortunately, because he serves a board of directors that will not decide or even discuss tough issues, he’s forced to make decisions that should only be made by publically accountable elected officials. Nothing illustrates this better than the inaction of the Placer County Water Agency board of directors regarding pension reform. Pension costs are bankrupting corporations, municipalities, and entire states across the nation. Pension reform is an issue of fiscal sustainability for most governments, but not for PCWA. We are a government-protected monopoly and provide a product that everyone must have. So when pension costs exceed the estimates of the eternally optimistic CAL-PERS actuaries, we can simply raise water rates and monthly charges until revenues match expenses. Now, I’m sure my board isn’t thinking, “Since we can just raise rates, there is nothing to worry about!” But there has been no discussion, and I can only guess they hope it will all just work out somehow, but hoping is not a substitute for action. The promised pensions of the agency are extremely generous. Our employees may retire at age 55 and their pension will be their highest year’s salary multiplied by 2.7 percent and the number of years the employee is with the agency. If the agency were any more generous in its pension offering we would literally be breaking the law. And while I believe it was foolish for the agency to make such generous promises, what’s done is done and we can’t unmake a promise. What is easy to change however, is our pension promises made to future employees, workers who haven’t been given a promise. Since winning election I’ve been unable to get any traction on this issue, so I exercised my right as a board member to have it included on our last board meeting agenda. And after sharing my concerns about putting my children and grandchildren on the hook for the pensions of current employees, I looked to my board colleagues for their input. Seeing or hearing no interest from my colleagues to share their thoughts before going further, I made a motion that PCWA create a second retirement plan to cover all future employees. My preference is that we offer a defined contribution plan instead of a defined benefit plan, but I’m willing to consider any reasonable course of action. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough in asking my board to consider making a change, but I am really bothered by the failure of any of my colleagues to second a motion to at least allow for board discussion. The good news is, we still have time to prevent this crisis from swamping our ratepayers with outrageous costs for their water. We can work together to reform our pension promises for future employees and bring our costs in line with the private sector. After all, living within our means and making prudent decisions for the future is something our ratepayers do every day. Ben Mavy is the District 5 director on the Placer County Water Agency board. District 5 includes Colfax, Bowman, Weimar, Foresthill, Emigrant Gap, Soda Springs, Martis Valley and Lake Tahoe area communities.