Water district puts rate hike on spin cycle

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman August 17, 2015 15:54

Say your girlfriend has leaned over backwards to please: For months she’s cooked your dinners, cleaned your house and put up with your quirky, irksome friends without a complaint.

Yet you know your relationship is on borrowed time and that sooner or later – probably sooner – you’ll have to tell her the truth.

But how do you do it? Dreading the direct confrontation you know will be uncomfortable, you momentarily contemplate sending her a drive-by email. Or having one of those irksome friends deliver the bad news for you. Or maybe coming down with some highly contagious, highly fake disease that renders any long-term relationship highly unlikely.

These options prove too sleazy even for you, and you resign yourself to, gulp, telling your soon-to-be ex-girlfriend the unvarnished truth.

Until, that is, you remember “message crafting.”


A stretch of the Columbia Ditch, part of TUD’s water system

“Yeah!” you say, pumping a fist as you recall your local water district’s answer to an equally sticky wicket – convincing its dutiful, water-conserving customers that rate increases are not only needed but might even be a good thing.

You rummage through old papers and pull out the story, which says the Tuolumne Utilities District (TUD) board on Aug. 11 voted unanimously to pay an El Dorado Hills outfit up to $10,000 “to help the district staff with ‘message crafting,’ so customers will understand why water and sewer rate increases are going to be necessary.”

“Transparency has got to be the key,” explained Lisa Westbrook, the district’s own PR specialist.

“Right on,” you think. “Transparency! That’s what I’m all about.”

So you reach for the phone and punch in the number for Sentium Strategic Communications, but before the robot receptionist up in Elk Grove comes on the line, you slam the receiver down. The $10,000 stopped you.

“Is that what transparency costs?” you ask yourself, thinking maybe you can negotiate Sentium down to, say, a grand or so to craft a straightforward message for your girlfriend.

Maybe for $1,000, these trained “communication strategists” will tell her the truth: that you don’t like the dresses she wears, that you think her feet smell and that, oh yeah, you’ve taken a shine to that blonde at the office. Or more likely, they’ll massage your message, varnish it, sugarcoat it and with four-bit words like “obfuscatory,” translate it into obfuscatory language she’ll barely understand but just might buy into.

You then realize that doing the job yourself would be more honest and much cheaper.

Which might be good advice for TUD, whose board is understandably anxious about this rate-increase business. After all, as customers have been coping with the drought by drinking, showering and flushing less than ever, directors probably assume some of us may question paying the district more in return for our sacrifices.

I happen to be a TUD customer. I follow its politics in the paper and even went to a board meeting a few months ago. Here is how I understand the district’s position:

The otherwise effective and admirable water-use cutbacks customers have made this year and last have led to lost revenue in the millions. Even though there’s less water in its storage tanks and reservoirs, and less running through its ditches, pipes, pumps and plants, TUD still must pay the same to maintain them.

Sure, the district could lay off staff, but what happens if the much-feared “Godzilla El Nino” hits this winter, perhaps inflicting heavy damage to TUD infrastructure? And if it doesn’t hit, won’t we need that staff to redouble efforts to find more water and effectively ration it?

The above is simplistic. But you’d think Westbrook and the district’s engineers, managers and directors, armed with logic, numbers and decades of collective TUD experience, should be able to make an effective, honest case for rate increases on their own.

Though we have been promised transparency, TUD says in effect, “Let’s run this by the folks up at Sentium, and we’ll get back to you”– adding another layer that pushes their efforts into the opaque.

Which to me means either:

1. That the district is selling us customers short, somehow believing that we won’t buy into its message unless it’s “crafted” by a team of urban spin doctors. Or…

2. That TUD really does have something to hide and needs help in doing so.

Being a trusting sort, I tend to believe the first and suggest that directors cancel their contract with Sentium, save $10,000 – which might plug a few ditch leaks – and talk to us without a middleman.

Think about it guys: How much tougher could it be than telling your girlfriend her feet stink?

Chris Bateman is a longtime journalist and columnist who lives in Columbia, California.


Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman August 17, 2015 15:54
Write a comment


  1. I Have A Brain August 19, 08:07

    Chris, too believe your first possibility… and I was on the phone with TUD about another matter just yesterday, and having read the article in the paper as well, suggested to her – why not just be honest that you need to raise rates because you are losing money?

  2. Hildred September 17, 11:01

    Great post.

View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*