FREMONT (KPIX 5) – Bay Area residents are facing steep water rate hikes as California's drought stretches into a fourth year. In one small East Bay water district, a resident said it's the lavish spending habits of an old boy's network that is making their bill go up.
Sixteen years of water rate hikes have made Eric Tsai a suspicious man. "I feel like they've been misleading us," he said.
A financial analyst by profession, he decided to take a look at the books of the Alameda County Water District, which supplies water to his city of Fremont, along with Newark and Union City. The numbers he said just don't add up.
The district said it will bring in $6 million extra needed to cover increased water supply related costs. But when Tsai did the math, he found most of the money isn't going to water costs, it's going to labor costs.
"It's completely different from what they have been telling the public," he said.
It turns out that district employees have it pretty good. More than 200 people on staff, even meter readers and customer service reps, make six-figures if you include benefits, which are very generous, even by Silicon Valley standards.
Tsai obtained the compensation records by a California public records request and crunched the numbers to come up with his list 241 compensation packages.
Topping the list at more than $377,000 is General Manager Robert Shaver. "We are competing for quality individuals with the likes of Google," Shaver told KPIX 5.
"How many years have employees received raises?" KPIX 5 asked him.
"They have received raises since I can remember," Shaver said.
Shaver said the latest rate hike has nothing to do with labor costs. "Actual labor costs will be significantly lower than budget," he said.
Even water supply costs are projected to go down. KPIX 5 asked Shaver, "How do you explain a rate increase if you pay less?"
"I would have to talk to my finance manager about this," Shaver responded. Later he confirmed water purchase costs will be lower this year than last.
What's not expected to change are the perks, especially for board members. Two of them in particular have a habit of attending multiple annual conferences held at expensive resorts at Disneyland and Monterey.
"So basically employees participate in the American Water Works Association Conference. So what employees learn is about new advances in water treatment technologies," said Shaver.
We asked him about one of the board members, John Weed.
KPIX 5: "He has gone to a number of these conferences, stayed at pricey hotels, nice steak dinners, that just doesn't sit well with ratepayers."
Shaver: "So John Weed is a director at ACWD, he does attend a number of conferences."
KPIX 5: "But more than $2,000 for one of these trips? That seems over the top."
Shaver: "Does it?"
KPIX 5: "Yes, to a ratepayer like myself."
Shaver: "I believe that our customers receive value out of that."
Customers like Eric Tsai beg to differ. "I think the process makes it very easy for them to raise rates. And it doesn't put pressure on them to cut costs, because why cut costs when you can just raise rates," he said.
The Alameda County Water District's board has never voted down a rate hike in 16 years, and just approved the latest hike this month.
Last year, the board did vote to spend $280,000 on a book about the agency's history, in honor of its 100 year anniversary. The author will be paid $60,000, and he's a former general manager.
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