Brand's fix for water pipes in NE Fresno homes gains detractor in Soria

Lee Brand’s relief proposal for NE Fresno residents to repair shoddy water pipes from local developers runs into a buzzsaw in Perealand.


I know all about the true color of the discolored water in Northeast Fresno – it’s green.


As in money.

And since we’re in the middle of Campaign 2016, that means mayoral politics are involved, as well.

Thanks to The Bee’s Tim Sheehan, just about everyone by now knows all about the discolored water controversy up there in the northeast. Some homes – maybe a few dozen, maybe more – are plagued with ugly water coming out of selected taps. The problem in some instances dates back a decade or more.

Iron, lead, zinc and copper are among the things floating around in the water. A certain type of galvanized pipe from a specific period of time appears to be the main culprit. Running the faucet for a few minutes seems to flush the bad stuff and result in safe, clean water for the family.

Still, no one will be happy until things are fixed for good. That’ll take time.

That brings us to the July 14 City Council meeting. Holly Carter spoke as part of the scheduled public communication period. This part of the agenda normally means the speaker gets a maximum of three minutes to raise an issue.

Carter this spring ran a spirited campaign for the District 6 council seat currently held by Lee Brand. She finished third in the June primary, narrowly missing a spot in the November runoff. Brand, who is termed out in January, is in a tough fight against Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea for mayor.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin is termed out in January. Garry Bredefeld and Jeremy Pearce are in the District 6 runoff. Brand endorsed Pearce. Carter has a good memory.

Carter told the council that she represents a large group of northeast residents concerned about their water. City Hall needs to get moving, she said.

The usual three-minute limit was obliterated. Council members, administration officials and residents exchanged pleas and promises for nearly an hour. Council Member Oliver Baines at one point tried to remind everyone of the rules for scheduled communication. He was ignored.

Perhaps a precedent has been set for the conduct of future scheduled communication appearances. If so, I pity all City Hall reporters.

Anyway, one aspect of the Carter-inspired debate got me to thinking.

The 2015-16 budget in a done deal. The council approved it in June, and the Mayor signed it.

The budget includes $750,000 to help residents with discolored water.

There’s a $250,000 rebate program for things like lead-free kitchen/bathroom fixtures. And there’s a $500,000 low-interest loan program for the replacement of bad pipes.

Both programs are the result of motions made by Brand during budget hearings. The motions generated no objections.

Motions are easy. The hard part is finding the money.

You see, the city’s Water Division is part of the Department of Public Utilities. DPU, as it’s called, is an enterprise department. It gets most of its operating revenue from ratepayers. You pay your residential trash bill – you get your trash picked up. You pay your water bill – you get water. Pretty simple.

DPU also gets money from grants and low-interest government loans. You know that $429 million upgrade to the city’s water system? It’s being funded with low-interest loans from the state.

This is my way of saying DPU doesn’t get general fund money. General fund money is spent at the discretion of elected officials. Most general fund money goes to police and fire.

Where are Swearengin and City Manager Bruce Rudd to get the $750,000 to fund the two Brand-sponsored discolored water programs? Well, at first there was talk about getting the money from a Water Division reserve account.

That talk soon died. The reason goes back to DPU as an enterprise department. That fact triggers Proposition 218. In a nutshell, Prop 218 (a part of the state constitution) prohibits the city from spending ratepayer money on things that benefit only a specific portion of the city.

You might say to me: If a water pump fails on Oak Street, DPU can’t use ratepayer money to fix it?

That’s not what I mean. The Oak Street pump is part of the overall water system. DPU Director Tommy Esqueda and his team are constantly spending ratepayer money to maintain and upgrade the system. That’s a fundamental reason for everyone paying their bills and pooling their money. In the end, everyone gets a high-quality water system and fair value for their money.

But Prop. 218 doesn’t want ratepayer money being used to give some type of break to John Doe on Elm Street just because he’s a nice guy.

A good example of how Prop 218 works in real life occurred a few years ago when the council approved a new five-year rate structure to pay for the upgrade to the water system. Council members wanted to create a program to help low-income ratepayers – in essence, a subsidy for a specific niche.

The council and administration settled on a $1 million program funded not with reserve money generated by ratepayers (a Prop. 218 no-no), but with money from things like fines for lawn-watering citations.

This brings us back to the Brand-sponsored discolored water programs. The notion of using reserve money got nowhere. Rudd told me recently that the money might come from fines, the rent from cell phone towers on DPU property and proceeds from the sale of water.

Rudd also mentioned these possible sources at the July 14 council meeting.

Hmmm. We’ve sure got a lot of moving pieces here.

Administration officials are quick to tell me that details for the two discolored water programs are still being worked out.

But without a doubt there’s plenty of opportunity here for rough-and-tumble campaign fighting between Brand and Perea.

For example, Brand told me on Sunday that he plans to codify the two discolored water programs as amendments to the Water Conservation Act (co-authored by Brand and Council President Paul Caprioglio).

How is it possible to use proceeds from the sale of water for the funding of the discolored water programs and not run afoul of the Prop. 218?

Near as I can tell, the city’s water system is not to blame for the discolored water. The problem involves the homeowner’s property (and decisions made by the residential developer many years ago).

Therefore, the discolored water rebates and low-interest loans apparently will go to a special niche of residents. Yet, the water being sold to help generate funding for the rebates and low-interest loans is surface water. This is water, whether from the San Joaquin River or the Kings River, that is purchased through decades-old contracts. The money to buy the water comes from ratepayers.

I don’t understand.

(City officials told me the only “profit” from water sales will go toward the funding of discolored water programs, which is OK under Prop. 218)

And while we’re at it, let’s reconsider this idea of DPU being an enterprise department with no funding from the general fund.

As already noted, city officials say the $1 million ratepayer rebate program funded with non-ratepayer money meets the Prop. 218 test. That must mean the $1 million is discretionary money or city officials wouldn’t be able to spend it on a special group of Fresnans. By my thinking, that means the money is general fund money that just happens to be generated by certain aspects of DPU operations and just happens to be parked in DPU. That’s a convenient source of spending money that doesn’t get a lot of media attention.

One other thing. I keep hearing that the $250,000 discolored water rebate program is for fixtures. What does that mean? Does that mean a bathroom faucet from 1989 that might be contributing to the discolored water problem in a specific house can be replaced with public money generated by the sale of river water purchased with ratepayer money?

We’re talking Northeast Fresno. Can’t the homeowner buy a new faucet with his own money?

My gut tells me the folks in the Perea camp and the Brand camp are thinking about all these angles. They’re thinking: How do we maximize this issue to our benefit in voters’ eyes? How do we minimize the threat this issue poses in the hands of our opponent?

This came through loud and clear at the July 14 council meeting.

Council Member Esmeralda Soria was one of the last speakers from the dais.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Soria said. “But I just want to ask a couple of questions that come to mind.”

Her first question was directed to Rudd.

“Bruce, is this just isolated to North Fresno?” Soria said. “Have we made any efforts to make sure this is not happening in other areas of the city?”

Rudd: “If the issue is citywide, we have the ability to address that.”

Soria asked if District 1, which she represents, has discolored water problems. Rudd said DPU is mainly looking at homes built in the late 1980s. Most homes built at this time are in North Fresno.

District 1 is south of Shaw Avenue. City Hall so far is concentrating its research on neighborhoods north of Shaw. Soria asked Rudd to expand the city’s discolored water outreach efforts to areas south of Shaw. Rudd said that could be done.

Soria concluded her remarks with the key issue – the $750,000.

“If (water) issues arise in another area, those folks will be able to access monies?” Soria said.

Rudd said the Administration is still working out details of the two programs.

Soria repeated her question.

Rudd: “If it’s related to the galvanized pipe, we could certainly look at that.”

Soria is dedicated to serving District 1. She needs no other motivation to ask such questions. At the same time, there’s no denying that she sits in the District 1 seat thanks to strong support from Perea in the 2014 election.

I’m betting Soria won’t be meek when Brand asks the council to add his discolored water amendments to the Water Conservation Act.

Soria very easily could turn this into a north-of-Shaw vs. south-of-Shaw class battle. She could say public money is buying a new kitchen faucet for Mrs. Smith up there in Northeast because of a bit of discolored water, but Mrs. Jones (or Garcia) in the environmentally-degraded Southwest must put with the same old fixture in her sink. She could say the $750,000 needs to be spent evenly throughout the city.

Perea would be above this fray. But on the stump, he might see an opportunity to pick off some Brand voters in the northeast – “Things are a mess – vote Perea.”

But I also wonder if Brand might be setting a trap for the Perea-Soria camp. I have nothing concrete to base this on. What follows is my speculation.

As we learned from budget hearings, the $1 million rebate program for low-income water ratepayers got less action than the Administration expected. Maybe there wasn’t enough outreach. Maybe low-income Fresnans live in modest-size houses or apartments, and therefore don’t use nearly as much water as those in the suburbs. Whatever the reason, the program appears to be overfunded.

Imagine if Brand made this proposal: Cut funding for the low-income ratepayer rebate program by $250,000; cut funding for the two discolored water programs by $250,000; take this $500,000 (all of it discretionary money in DPU coffers) and spend it on alley cleanups.

Most alleys are south of Shaw. Many are in low-income neighborhoods. Many are in minority neighborhoods.

Dirty, overgrown, dangerous alleys are a huge concern for many residents. These residents feel they’ve been forgotten by City Hall. Many of these residents are voters.

The Administration is already spending a modest amount of money to hire private community groups to clean alleys. This money comes from the Community Sanitation Division. Community Sanitation is part of DPU.

No one is raising a Prop. 218 stink.

A half-million bucks would hire a lot of community groups to clean alleys. I’ve written about one group of mothers in Southeast Fresno already doing such work – for free.

Brand says his strong support from H. Spees means he’ll get some heartfelt introductions to activist ministers in older parts of town. That’s nice. But perhaps Brand will look at the political optics of his discolored water programs, and at Perea attempting (perhaps successfully) to peel away a small but pivotal portion of Brand’s base in North Fresno, and decide he needs to fight fire with fire south of Shaw.

That means getting money – greenbacks – down there.

Council Member Brand – if you don’t try, Council Member Soria will.

  1. I believe Doug Vagim and myself will sit this one out! You are right on Prop 218, the city sued Doug and I over the $429 million, can’t they sue the pipe manufacture or developers that used poor materials?

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