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NEWS ANALYSIS : Mayor Quietly Weighs Increase in DWP Rates : Utilities: Local lawmakers say the plan could backfire on the mayor by angering the Valley, key base of his support.


Mayor Richard Riordan's flirtation with the notion of hiking Department of Water and Power rates to pay for more police has the potential to be a political gaffe in the San Fernando Valley, the very region that put him over the top in the June runoff election.

The plan has also raised concerns about the sincerity of the new mayor's agreement fewer than two weeks ago--at the behest of Valley lawmakers--to convene a panel to review the fairness of the DWP's rate system, which has been particularly controversial in the Valley.

"It's this kind of thing that will make the Valley come unglued," Paul Clarke, a corporate political consultant, said of the rate-hike-for-cops idea.

"There's going to be an outrage about this, particularly in the Valley, but elsewhere as well," predicted Councilman Joel Wachs, who represents the northeast and central Valley.

The mayor's behind-the-scenes effort to test interest in a DWP increase comes at a time when many DWP customers in the Valley--and their City Hall representatives--already are inflamed about skyrocketing water rates.

"This guy must have a screw loose," said the aide to one Valley-based council member, who reported fielding hundreds of phone calls this summer from constituents upset by DWP bills, which are frequently in the $700 to $900 range for two months. The aide requested anonymity.

Under a new water rate system, DWP has established two rate tiers, with the higher rate taking effect when customers use twice the median amount of water in a billing period. Valley lawmakers say the new system unfairly hits their constituents hardest because the Valley is hotter and Valley homeowners have larger lawns, which need more watering.

"My public is already groaning under the weight of exorbitant DWP bills," complained Councilwoman Laura Chick, who Thursday vowed to oppose DWP rate increases to pay for general fund expenditures. Chick represents the southwestern portion of the Valley.

Chick was one of several City Hall officials who told the media that Riordan has been floating the notion of a DWP rate increase to pay for more police.

Riordan, according to Chick and others, has privately speculated that DWP electric rates might be brought more in line with those charged by Southern California Edison Co. Edison's power rates are 15% to 20% higher than DWP's, according to DWP officials.

Concurrently, DWP is proposing a 4.7% increase in electric rates, but that is billed as a cost-of-living adjustment that would not help subsidize police operations.

Riordan, however, is looking at a more ambitious program to boost DWP "profits" to pay for more police, acknowledged Deputy Mayor Mike Keeley. Raising rates to increase those profits is one option, "although clearly the least attractive one," Keeley said. Another way to tap DWP coffers for the LAPD would be to make the utility more productive, he said.

Chick said she is hopeful the mayor's consideration of a DWP hike will have a short life.

"I see this as a trial balloon," Chick said. "He's throwing it out to see what the reaction will be. I think he'll see it's a disaster, especially in the Valley. I'm fairly confident it's a balloon that's going to pop."

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