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Secession Foes Cite Utility Bills

Debate: Separatists see suggestions that water and power rates could rise as scare tactics.


Helen Dalton often winces when she opens the water and power bill for her lushly landscaped home on half an acre in Sherman Oaks. The charge for the latest two-month period was $300.

Hotter months have sent her bill into the $500 neighborhood.

Dalton, a retiree on a fixed income, plans to vote against San Fernando Valley secession--in part because she worries that a municipal split would bring higher and higher utility rates. "It's a concern," she said.

As the debate over carving up Los Angeles enters its final month, the anti-secession campaign led by Mayor James K. Hahn is intent on making water and power rates a breakout pocketbook issue. Secessionists are just as determined to paint Hahn as a fear-monger who distorts the facts on utility rates to distract attention from City Hall's broader shortcomings.

Both sides know that water and power pack a punch with voters still jittery from the state's electricity crisis and forever sweating the next drought.

The message of the Hahn forces is stark: If the Valley and Hollywood cityhood proposals win at the polls on Nov. 5, residents of the new municipalities could lose the relatively stable rates and plentiful supplies offered by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Sprinkling the lawn and cranking up the air conditioner would soon become expensive luxuries.

Secessionists contend that Hahn has grossly misrepresented the state-mandated terms of a breakup. They note that the Local Agency Formation Commission, which approved both cityhood measures for the ballot, has directed the DWP to continue serving an independent Valley or Hollywood at rates no higher than those charged in Los Angeles.

Under LAFCO's formula, the DWP would become a contractor for the new cities, unless they chose to buy their water and power from other providers.

"I see no chance that we would not get water on the same terms and conditions as the rest of the city," said Richard Close, an attorney who heads the secession group Valley VOTE.

Question of Authority

The anti-secession camp, however, insists that LAFCO overstepped its authority by including that utility-rate provision in the secession proposals. Hahn and other Los Angeles officials say the state Constitution and the City Charter give the DWP sole power to set rates. And opponents argue that the laws require the DWP to provide the cheapest possible service to its Los Angeles customers, even if that means higher costs for Valley and Hollywood cities.

They say it already costs more to serve the Valley, which has generally larger home lots and higher temperatures than the rest of the city, placing more demand on the DWP.

Legal challenges over utility rates are considered likely if secession prevails. LAFCO itself has suggested the courts might have to resolve the matter.

"It's absolutely inevitable that it will end up in court," said Steve Erie, a water expert and political science professor at UC San Diego.

Water originally brought the Valley and Los Angeles together. In 1915, the Valley agreed to be annexed by Los Angeles in exchange for access to the then-2-year-old Los Angeles Aqueduct. The aqueduct piped snowmelt from the eastern Sierra to the parched Valley floor, irrigating farms and later making possible the explosion in home building.

Secession leaders say that the Valley is now entitled to future DWP service at reasonable rates because the region has paid its share of building the utility's infrastructure for 87 years. The secessionists initially demanded that an independent Valley get an ownership stake in the DWP, but LAFCO rejected that arrangement as unworkable.

The agency determined that, unlike streets and parks and city buildings, the DWP's massive generation and delivery systems are too complex to divide up between Los Angeles and the Valley, not to mention Hollywood.

LAFCO decided that Los Angeles would continue to own the system, but could not jack up rates for the Valley or Hollywood if secession passes.

The DWP already provides water by contract to other cities and communities, including West Hollywood and Universal City, but charges them higher rates. That's because the DWP acts as a middle agent for those cities, buying supplies from the Metropolitan Water District and delivering them on Los Angeles-owned pipelines. MWD water costs as much as 25% more than water from the L.A. Aqueduct, and the DWP passes those higher rates along.

Contract Arrangement

Anti-secessionists say the DWP could demand a similar arrangement with a new Valley or Hollywood city. That would mean steeper bills in the breakaway areas.

"I can't see the DWP violating the City Charter and selling its cheapest water to an outside agency, such as a Valley city," said Larry Levine, who heads the anti-secession organization One Los Angeles.

Hahn echoed that view. "We don't think LAFCO has the ability to supersede water law or the City Charter," the mayor said.

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