This feels a little strange in an only-in-LA way, but maybe it shouldn't. Austin Beutner, who was fired last September as the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, had a piece this week on the op-ed page that he used to oversee as publisher. The opinion piece about the Department of Water and Power was co-bylined by Beutner and Democratic Party powerhouse and sometime-City Hall lobbyist Mickey Kantor, in their roles as co-chairs of the LA2020 commission. That was the group that filed a 2014 report calling for a number of civic reforms and good government steps that has had approximately no impact on the City Hall decision makers it was intended to spur into action.
Beutner and Kantor argue for changes in the governance of the DWP and a cap on how much of the taxes collected from customers gets diverted to the city's general budget:
Every time you turn on a light or charge your cellphone, you pay a tax. Surprised? Many Angelenos don't realize that hidden in their monthly bill from the Department of Water and Power is a big surcharge in the form of a 10% City of Los Angeles Utility Tax, as well as a “transfer” of 8% of all electric-related revenue to City Hall. In short, you're paying almost 20% more for electricity than you should be.
For a typical residential DWP customer with an electric bill of $130, that's about $25 each month that gets paid right into the city's general fund and spent on things that have nothing to do with keeping the lights on. There is no question rates have to go up if DWP is to modernize its system to produce cleaner, more reliable power — but that issue is separate and apart from the question of how much DWP revenue should be siphoned off by City Hall.
In the coming days, the City Council will vote on the largest power rate increase in DWP history — a cumulative hike of more than 20% over five years. Over the next decade, that will produce a windfall for the city's coffers, almost $1 billion. To be clear — this money is coming out of ratepayers' pockets, but none of it will be spent to improve the utility's aging infrastructure, increase wind or solar power generation, or make service more affordable and reliable.
How has this happened? Because there is a complete lack of public accountability at DWP.
Kantor and Beutner note that the mayor always has signed resignation letters from the DWP commissioners on file in case they need to be dumped for going off the reservation, agenda-wise. So basically, the commission members are tools. Beutner should know. When he was the volunteer deputy mayor for Antonio Villaraigosa, one of his areas was the DWP. In the piece, Beutner and Kantor call for replacing the unpaid DWP commission with a paid panel that has more independence from whoever holds the office of mayor.
Minor note: When Beutner hosted an evening conversation about the future of journalism at his home last week, featuring Washington Post editor Marty Baron and Columbia journalism dean Steve Coll, Kantor was among the guests. One of the side topics of conversation among the guests, by the way, was speculating on where Beutner will next show up as a player in the LA media scene.