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Automated water fines for high usage? Fresno City Council decides Thursday

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Automated water fines for high usage? Fresno City Council decides Thursday

City Hall plans to study water-consumption habits with residential water meters to assess optimal water conservation enforcement and penalties.

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(This blog contains a correction about two-thirds of the way into it.)

Fresno may be heading toward its own version of tiered water rates.

If so, a bit of experimentation and deception will be necessary.

The immediate issue is a proposed pilot program for the automated enforcement of watering rules. The program would use computerized data from residential water meters to nab rule-breakers.

The idea goes to the City Council on Thursday.

No need here to belabor the backstory. Water is always a precious resource in the Valley. The weather never cooperates 100% of the time. Sacramento lawmakers and bureaucrats insanely reject more storage. Our only options are to conserve water voluntarily or by government threat.

City Hall’s plan is to partner with analytical experts from the University of Chicago to study the water-consumption habits of a half-million guinea pigs – you and me.

The proposed program, writes Public Utilities analyst Cheryl Burns in a staff report, would use residential water meters “to assess optimal water conservation enforcement at varying penalty and water use thresholds to determine the most effective combination for achieving water conservation compliance while minimizing the final burden to customers.”

I think that’s another way of saying, “Let’s see if we can have our cake and eat it, too.”

Fresno’s water department serves about 115,500 single-family homes. All of those homes have water meters connected to City Hall computers. The computers know all when it comes to water consumption.

The City Council last year approved a definition of “excessive water use” – more than 300 gallons per hour during hours when outdoor irrigation is prohibited. You can be fined for breaking the rule. First, though, the protocol is for a city employee, tipped off by the computer data, to actually observe you breaking the rule.

Public Utilities has been refining and enhancing its water meter-computer system. Officials are now ready to take the leap to a fully automated method of conservation enforcement.

No more sending a water inspector in a Public Utilities hybrid to your home at 2 in the afternoon to see if you left the hose running on the side yard. The second that 301st gallon of water is used within a 60-minute window – bam! – the computer can spit out a citation and accompanying fine.

Sounds simple to me. Why bother with a pilot program?

Burns sort of answers my question. She writes that the pilot program “would aim to determine what level of automated enforcement for outdoor watering violations is most effective.”

Most effective at achieving what? If Burns answers that question, I can’t find it in her report. Perhaps we need the pilot program to determine the pilot program’s purpose.

This is how I understand the program to work:

1.) Each of the 115,500 accounts will be assigned to one of two enforcement methods. There’s the current water inspector-visual way. And there’s the Big Brother-computerized way.

2.) These 115,500 accounts will be further subdivided by trigger point – when your hourly use during non-irrigating periods causes City Hall to hit the panic button. For some accounts, that will be 300 gallons per hour. For other accounts, that will be 500 gallons per hour. For still others, that will be 700 gallons per hour.

3.) Finally, these 115,500 accounts will be subdivided yet again, this time by size of fines. Some accounts will be subject to the current schedule of fines. Other accounts will be subject to fines that are 50% lower than the current schedule. Still other accounts will be subject to fines that are 75% lower than the current schedule.

Got it?

The pilot program is slated to run from July 1 through Sept. 30. Customers via email, phone or the Internet can opt out.

I don’t understand exactly what “opt out” means.

It’s my understanding that the current enforcement system consists of 1.) the water inspector-visual method; 2.) an “excessive water use” definition of 300 gallons per hour; 3.) the current fine schedule.

It’s also my understanding that it’s possible for someone who agrees to take part in the pilot program to find himself in the categories of 1.) the water inspector-visual method; 2.) an “excessive water use” definition of 300 gallons per hour; 3.) the current fine schedule.

If everyone who opts out is, by default, relegated to the above cohort of guinea pigs, could that skew the experiment’s results? I don’t know. I’ll leave it to the experts.

(CORRECTION: The remainder of my blog deals with my interpretation of the policy and political impacts of the automated enforcement pilot program. City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff told me on Wednesday, after my blog had been posted, that I was factually wrong on one key point in what follows. The low-income subsidy program that I describe below is funded by late fees – fines, if you will – on delinquent water bills, not by fines on excessive watering during prohibited hours. Please take note. I thank Mark for bringing my error to my attention and to the attention of CVObserver readers. Otherwise, I stand by my analysis. Here’s how things were explained to me on Wednesday: Let’s say John Doe doesn’t pay his water bill. Let’s say Mr. Doe has been cited several times for excessive water consumption at 2 in the afternoon. Mr. Doe also fails to pay his fine for excessive watering. Finally, Mr. Doe goes to City Hall to pay up on everything. Mr. Doe, according to the FY 2017 Master Fee Schedule (the most recent schedule I could find), pays a 2% late fee on the unpaid water bill. I’m told he also pays a 2% late fee on the unpaid watering citation. The amount of the original water bill and the amount of the original watering fine are returned to the Water Department’s enterprise fund. I’m told it’s the 2% penalty for both the late water bill and the late water citation that go to help fund the low-income subsidy program. The automated enforcement pilot program in the finest behaviorist tradition is designed in part to maximize fine revenue while minimizing customer anger. Some of that maximized revenue will, through fines for delinquent payments on excessive watering citations, make its way to the politically-vital low-income subsidy program. Never forget – City Hall needs your money.)

As to what the end game is here, I suggest a major factor is building up Public Utilities’ discretionary pot of water money. That’s another way of saying the politicians’ discretionary pot of water money.

Recall, if you will, the series of Recharge Fresno community meetings from several years ago. Water issues are varied and complex. The meetings were jam-packed with debate on those issues.

Three points from those meetings apply here.

First, City Hall, with the help of state law, is well on its way to getting a handle on water conservation. Regulatory law, especially when it comes to the construction of new residential units, is the game-changer. The era of vast suburban single-family housing tracts with 10,000-square-foot lots and immense lawns is gone forever. Fresno’s population will keep growing. The demand for water will never cease. But it’s inevitable that our per-capita consumption will continue to drop.

Second, the hue and cry by many at those Recharge Fresno meetings was for tiered water rates. Make customers with those huge front lawns pay more for water past a certain consumption baseline than homeowners on tiny lots or with landscaping full of rocks and concrete. No can do, city officials said. Proposition 218 says we can only charge each customer for his fair share of what it costs to provide the service. The notion of the progressive income tax applied to water consumption is a non-starter.

Third, the Recharge Fresno meetings were all about a new set of five-year water rates. Those proposed rates consisted of big yearly hikes. The hikes during the debate stage were in trouble without a subsidy program for low-income homeowners. But where to get the money? Proposition 218 prevented City Hall from using ratepayer funds. Well, City Hall found the money. The subsidy program that saved Recharge Fresno is funded with customer fines from excessive water use.

A new set of water rates is just over the horizon. Those rates no doubt will be higher than the current rates. City Hall will need more subsidies to make the new rates politically palatable. City Hall needs more revenue from fines, but doesn’t want a lot of that money to come from groups that routinely receive lots of protection from social justice warriors. City Hall wants that fine revenue to come from well-heeled people who say, “You know what? Paying a little extra to keep my lawn green and to irrigate whenever I want is A-OK by me.”

City Hall politicians get more money to fund their role as Heroes of the People at the same time that Fresno, herding its rising population into high-density housing projects with postage stamp-size green space, continues to be the poster child for municipal water conservation.

The result isn’t precisely tiered water rates. But the effect is the same. And, that’s fine with me.

Let’s see if those Windy City experts can deliver some Goldilocks magic – a system of fines not too high, not too low, but just right.

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George Hostetter

George Hostetter is a contributor to CVObserver.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. B.P.

    May 16, 2018 at 9:02 am

    They are looking for what is most effective at reducing excessive water use, with the least cost to the city.

    If you can opt out of the pilot program, then you are opting out of the pilot program and enforcement would continue to work the way it does outside of the pilot program.

    These things are obvious. The only real mystery here is why anybody still pays you to write these fluffy, know-nothing columns.

  2. James Hering

    May 16, 2018 at 9:06 am

    In my experience, the water meter readings are not accurate enough to rely on for penalties. Although our water usage is relatively consistant, the meter readings fluxuate significantly. One month will show us using double what an average home uses and the following month, we use less than half the average. My conclusion, confirmed by the experience of neighbors, is that the meter readings are not accurate on a monthly basis and that implies that they are not accurate on an hourly basis either.

  3. ed mason

    May 16, 2018 at 9:14 am

    We are over taxed for services received all ready. I live in the Fresno county (Sunnyside), and been forced into the City of Fresno’s water system over the years. When I moved into my house in 1979, my Fresno County water bill was $12.00 every other month. Today I am being charged more than that just to maintain the water meter I did not want. Now the City of Fresno wants to come up with a way to fine people on a auto pilot automated computer system, just to raise more money. Has nothing to do with saving water, has everything to do with taking more money out of the pockets of people to pay for a bloated city government system. Living in the county, I have no say either about it too.

  4. James Pratt

    May 21, 2018 at 9:15 pm

    It was predicted, for years, that once they installed water meters they would be able to wring us dry (if you pardon the pun). I have seen a steady upswing in my water bill despite a constant usage over the past years since meters. Us retired citizens don’t need this. It looks like it could get a whole lot worse.

  5. Robert Graham

    May 26, 2018 at 7:40 pm

    If the city is going to fine for high usage, how about if they reward customers with lower bills for conservation?

  6. David Decker

    August 11, 2018 at 8:49 am

    I would like to know how the city can possibly view each meters flow over a period of 1 hour? These meters can be polled by a passing vehicle but can not transmit over an extended range and certainly not all the way downtown. Seems to me this is a bunch of nonsense!

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