Tight financial margins are not kind to political squabbles. In the last few weeks the city of Los Angeles has been engaged in a squabble with the city council and its utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). The city’s mayor wants the utility to implement green power, the utility asked for a rate increase to cover additional expenses, the council refused and the utility held hostage a transfer to the city of funds.
Each of these events has its own logic, but when the “b”-word (as in “bankruptcy”) got thrown around, the city’s rating was downgraded and put on negative watch.
Looked at from a different perspective, when one body of government promotes green power or makes a regulatory change, utilities either get some kind of financial incentive or are simply required to comply. They could file a rate increase request with their state Public Utilities Commission. Or at the municipal level the utility would pass along the extra costs to the consumer – assuming the local council goes along. The PUC could grant the increase (or not) and the utility would charge higher rates or alternatively eat the loss through lower profits (or maybe find savings!).
Transfers from municipally owned utilities are also common practice. Think of them as “payments in lieu of taxes” (PILOT). Most investor owned utilities (IOU’s) pay taxes to the local government. The PILOT or tax covers the cost of the usual stuff – police, fire, sanitation, roads that benefit the utility, as well as an economic environment that allows the utility to grow or maintain its customer base. In some parts of the country, where municipally owned utilities are more common, these transfers are made below the line – after all other expenses have been paid – so that the security covering utility bonds is not compromised. For IOU’s, not paying the corporate taxes – is out of the question. Non-payment could result in penalties or shut-off of power.
Not so in Los Angeles where all of this is up for negotiation. In tight economic times, when reserves are thin and maintaining monthly cash flow is essential to the government function, a hold-up could spell disaster. The LA city council opted to play a high stakes game and in the current environment, the mayor’s counter-offer of bankruptcy or shutting down city government added fuel to the fire. Factors that are not up for negotiation elsewhere got caught in the political crossfire in Los Angeles.
I am posting Municipal Utility Transfers , an article I wrote some time ago on this topic – covering Los Angeles under Mayor Riordan – that still has merit today. For municipal history buffs (a small and nerdy group), today bears a strong resemblance to the 1992 period: a run-up in asset values followed by a bubble-burst; taxpayer protests; downgrades and economic recession, particularly in southern California not to mention the Clinton mid-term elections. Keep in mind that the city of Los Angeles and its utility are large, diverse and wealthy and will be able to manage through the storm.