Helix Water District Shrinks Its Budget

Helix Water District Shrinks Its Budget

By Russell Buckley

So reads the headline in the most recent edition of Helix Highlights - a glossy publication from HWD. I am happy to see costs reduced. I assume that will mean lower water rates - a thing I expect most of us can agree about. But a little more reflection on the article brings out the skeptic in me. Ongoing MOU negotiations, which many of us have urged reign in unjustifiable benefits costs, must be about ready to conclude. The skeptic in me wonders if this article is timed to try to soften us up for what will be minimal reduction to the overly generous benefits packages provided to HWD workers. 

I recognize a couple of arguments that HWD General Manager Mark Weston, has used to justify the existing benefits - especially pensions. One argument is that the employees at Helix do their jobs so well that they deserve to have ratepayers provide pensions and health care benefits well in excess of what is required to provide retirement security (and much more generous than what rate payers, unless they are also public sector workers, will enjoy in retirement). I reiterate that I have no quarrel with the competence of HWD workers. When I turn on my spigot a bountiful flow of clean water comes out. That seems a reasonable expectation, as does the expectation that the rates we pay be spent in a frugal manner. That is HWD's responsibility! Just as it was our responsibility to reduce consumption when water became scarce.

The article also notes that both water usage and HWD expenditures have come down. Good - that too is as it should be. When we reduce water usage we should expect a reduction in costs since the cost of water is a significant part of HWD operating costs. As far as the reduction in staff mentioned in the article, I note that the reductions still leave the department at higher manning levels than they enjoyed only a few years ago.

Nowhere in the article is a reduction of cost of the exorbitant employee benefits, especially pension cost, mentioned. HWD employees receive both Social Security and a very generous CalPers pension, and are eligible for a small 401(a) matching program. The CalPers program HWD employees are on is not the one designed for those also receiving Social Security - but a much richer and costlier one.  Rate payer's are still required to pay over $900,000 for the "employee portion" of CalPers pension costs - as well as the rate payer portion which is larger than the employee portion and growing rapidly. Ratepayers bear ALL of the financial risk of an under-funded system - HWD is about $13.5 million under-funded. Pension costs must be brought down to a reasonable level by returning to the concept of providing retirement security - not wealth generation!

When we complained about pension costs at the recent rate increase hearing, we were told they would be reduced at the next MOU negotiations. That is now! Meaningful reform should: (1) Require employees to pay the full 8% employee portion of costs and (2) require new employees to participate in the program designed for those who also receive Social Security - 1.5% at 65.

Lets hope the HWD article is not a signal that significant pension and other benefits reform will be absent from the new MOU.

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Tags: Government, HWD, Helix Water District, Russell Buckley

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Comment by David Stanley on April 1, 2011 at 5:35am
Mr. Slater, I am happy for you that you vented your spleen but disappointed that you prove yourself yet another true believer and more than willing to accept and swallow every fiat, tax, rate increase and fee foist off on you by your beloved government.  A "Cynic" is someone critical of the decisions of others, someone who asks questions and someone who decries stupidity and quite often greed. A "Cynic" is someone who DOES NOT passively sit in their chair and merely accept.  That the snow pack surpasses previous levels DOES impact us even though you so vociferously reply it does not. Water rates state wide are impacted by water levels and availability and water districts use these levels and facts to their political advantage and "support" to "reexamine" their rates. These rates then are used for personal and employee raises and beneifts which WE, you and I, must add to our ever growing financial burden. That we draw our water from local reservoirs has no bearing on this issue. ITS THE POLITICS OF IT. And though, in your wee and government supporting-no matter what - mind you shout to those like minded that MY comments are antagonistic and misguided. I would suggest that you just keep breaking out your check book and paying those ever higher bills and go back to sleep whilst we "misguided" and "shallow" ones attempt to stop the runaway rates, fees and taxes. Then you will be able to take advantage of our "antagonistic comments" and efforts.  And perhaps YOU should do abit of research. WE do not live in a desert. I live in a coastal area made beautiful by thoughtful conservation and the wide use of available water. Where I live is beautiful. Where do YOU live?  David Stanley
Comment by Russell Buckley on March 31, 2011 at 9:45pm
Hi Bill. I find your comments hard to follow. The issue I spoke about is the unreasonable pensions afforded public sector workers - especially those at HWD. Any chance you could focus your remarks on that subject? Russell
Comment by Bill Slater on March 31, 2011 at 9:16pm
If you had any idea of how the water system works in california you would withhold your antagonistic comments. I guess you still have not accepted the fact that you live in a desert. Snow in northern CA does nothing to relive southern CA, especially when the environmentalists have effectively shutdown the ability to transfer that water down here. You should spend some time researching it and then you might realize how shallow and misguided your comments are. I guess public agencies just have to take whatever the few of you should propose because you seem to understand every issue with extraordinary clarity and the people that run the cities and special districts have no clue about what they are doing. They should hire you guys to run everything so you can fix everything you think is broken.
Comment by David Stanley on March 17, 2011 at 7:01am
I hear on the news this morning that California currently has 128 % snow pack with much more expected. Reservoirs are dumping and rain is expected here Sunday and Monday. This means, of course, that because of the plethora of water in and for the state, our rates will be adjusted downward. Whew! I thought there that Water Boards and Districts were just going to just keep pumping up the rates for better personal benefits.  Boy, am I relieved!!!  David Stanley

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