Water officials discuss choice for ratepayer advocate

Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency

SCV Water officials named a ratepayer advocate Tuesday, citing the chosen firm’s use of effective graphic software to explain water rates as a key factor in their decision making.

On Tuesday, members of the SCV Water board of directors voted to endorse the Santa Barbara-based consulting firm Robert D. Niehaus Inc. as its ratepayer advocate.

Seeking transparency and, at the same time, hoping to assure SCV customers that water rates reflect the accurate cost of providing water, local water officials adopted a rate-setting process nine months ago that includes a voice for the “little guy.” 

On Nov. 6, the SCV Water Agency’s board of directors fulfilled an obligation spelled out in the state Senate bill that created the agency — making room in its rate-setting process for an independent ratepayer advocate by the end of 2018.

SCV Water Agency board President Bill Cooper noted Tuesday that while the ratepayer advocate is a “voice for the little guy,” it’s also a voice for everyone.

Board member Dan Mortensen, who served on the committee that reviewed the three finalists for the position, said: “In the end, we chose them because they have a program that can display our data graphically.”

The two firms competing for the position of ratepayer advocate would, by contrast, use a “one-time graphic.”

Eric Campbell, the agency’s chief finance and administration officer, explained to the board that the “Python” software, “does a great job crunching hundreds of thousands of data points.”

“What you end up with is an analytic tool used to see the results of different (water) rate designs,” he said.

On its website, Robert D. Niehaus Inc. defines itself as a professional economic consulting firm, specializing in regional and resource economic analysis for public/private agencies and utilities. 

The firm set up shop in 1983, and now has 24 staffers made up of economists and market analysts.

Having a ratepayer advocate on hand to assess, among other considerations, the fairness of proposed water rates, was one of the cornerstones of Senate Bill 634, which created the SCV Water Agency.

Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, the author of S.B. 634 — which combined existing water-delivery agencies into the SCV Water Agency — said the role of such an advocate would serve as the watchdog for the “little guy” looking out for unfair rate increases, when the bill was being created. 

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