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Editor’s note: This editorial is the second of a series. For the first editorial, see “Water Woes” in the Jan. 3 edition of theDaily Press.

In the past few days many households in Santa Monica received a Notice of Proposed Water Rate Increases. According to the notice, these increases will help support many aspects of our city’s water system, including buying imported water, increasing production of local water, paying for capital infrastructure costs (pumps, pipes and other equipment), and other items.

How did the Water Resources Division decide on the increased rates? It hired an expert consultant to do a thorough analysis of the city’s water system, its features, costs and efficiency increases, including an estimate of the number of customers the system would have in the future. Based on this analysis, the consultant proposed specific increases in the water rates. The consultant’s draft report can be downloaded here: http://tinyurl.com/lbs5nnn.

To understand the system’s future costs, and how many customers would be available to pay for those costs, the consultant needed to make an informed guess about the number of future water customers. The consultant’s report (Section 3.1) assumes the city’s population will increase about 0.5% per year, or about 2,270 people over the report’s five years.

Is this a realistic number? According to the Planning and Community Department’s website (http://tinyurl.com/mtwlnmh) there are about 2,100 units either permitted or in the process of obtaining approval just in the downtown district alone (not including hotels). This represents about 3,800 new residents just in the downtown area.

So the water consultant projected about 2,270 new residents citywide in the next five years, but builders think (and bet) that the downtown area alone will likely see nearly double that number instead. That’s a big difference, and raises questions about the reliability of the report’s projections and conclusions (and recommended water rate increases) for the city as a whole.

How could the consultant have missed this number? Here’s how: the consultant used population projections provided by the city’s 2010 Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), the main planning document for our city. Our colleague Armen Melkonians showed, in a report from 2012, that these projections are questionable because they are based on historical trends (among other things) and don’t account for increases in the number of residents caused by the plan’s own impact. The plan itself allows more residential construction than those projections indicate.

This is not a criticism of the Water Resources Division or its consultant. They used source material provided by the city. But it’s an example of the cascading impact of questionable information, developed in the past and then used over time by various departments for many different purposes, such as evaluating water rate increases. This information is buried deep in the consultant’s report, and in the Water Resources Division’s staff report to City Council. And now City Council will decide whether to approve the water rate increases recommended by the Division.

Members of City Council have full-time jobs and hardly have the time and resources to deeply analyze the mountains of data they receive as council members. The same applies to the Planning Commission. They both rely on department staff for the accuracy of the information used to make important decisions. Department staff members are human beings, subject to echo-chamber bias, peer pressure, career ambitions and other forces that can influence the presentation of information, even when created with the best of intentions. If some of that information is unreliable, it is difficult for the time-deprived Council members to track down inconsistencies in that information. And there is nobody else who can evaluate the accuracy of the information provided to City Council.

To be able to plan appropriately for our city’s needs, we need to have valid, dependable, and as accurate information as possible. How do we plan the future of our eight square miles if the data we are presented lacks consistency from one consultant to another, one agency to another, one expert to another? How do our Planning Commission and City Council make responsible decisions on approval of large developments, which have significant impact on our water, waste, and power infrastructure, if they are presented conflicting or outmoded data?

Here’s how: we could take our lead from other cities and governments, and have an analyst evaluate, independently and without bias, the numbers and assumptions provided to the Council, and verify their accuracy on an on-going basis. San Diego has an Office of the Independent Budget Analyst (“Mission Statement: To provide clear, objective and unbiased analysis and advice to the City Council and the public regarding all legislative items bearing financial and policy impacts to the City of San Diego”) and San Francisco has an office of the Budget and Legislative Analyst performing a similar independent and unbiased service.

Some might object that creating a new government position or hiring a new consultant is not what we need at this time. But it serves nobody if City Council, the Planning Commission and other bodies are forced to rely on outmoded, questionable or biased data for their decisions, especially on controversial matters such as development, taxes and fees. And the ripple effects of older bits of data, used and re-used for many different purposes, and then embedded deep in staff reports, can have important real-world consequences for our city’s residents, as we may see with the increases in water rates currently proposed.

We’re a city with a half-billion-dollar budget, running multiple complex agencies providing a large variety of services not provided by many other cities. It is time for our representatives to have access to accurate, unbiased and independent analyses of the information used to make far-reaching decisions.

Bob Taylor, A.I.A., and Daniel Jansenson, Architect, are members of Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

SM a.r.t.: Thane Roberts AIA, Architect, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Daniel Jansenson, Architect, Armen Melkonians, Civil and Environmental Engineer, Samuel Tolkin, AIA, Phil Brock, Recreation & Parks Commission

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