Love where you live!
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.