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.