The city may revisit the idea of merging Long Beach’s utility services in the coming months as officials work toward amending the city charter through a ballot measure, according to a city memo.
Chris Garner, the general manager of the Long Beach Water Department and Bob Dowell, the city’s director of Energy Resources, which oversees consumer natural gas delivery, sent a memo to city officials last month expressing interest in taking another look at consolidation.
The purpose would be to create a single business entity under one governing body that would have utility-focused governance to help set policy and rates, the memo said. Currently, Garner is hired by and reports to the Board of Water Commissioners, while Dowell reports to the city manager.
A ballot measure that would have created a Utilities Commission to oversee both water and energy was presented in 2018 before the City Council and the Charter Amendment Committee, which voted to abandon it in August of that year by opting to leave it off that year’s November election ballot.
On Friday, Garner said that the decision to pull it from consideration for the 2018 ballot was because of poor polling figures with less than 40% of residents signaling support for the consolidation of city utilities.
“It shocked the heck out of me because to me it was one of the least controversial items being placed on the ballot,” Garner said of the 2018 election, which included multiple charter reforms including a controversial increase to term limits for the City Council and mayor.
However, with increased outreach, the city is optimistic that the measure could pass this time. Any change to the city charter would require over 50% of voters to approve the merger. The issue likely wouldn’t appear on a ballot until 2022, the memo said.
If a ballot measure is pursued, it’s unclear what would happen to the city’s oil and waste energy operations, which are also part of the Energy Resources department.
Garner said that the while the memo was very preliminary and that formal discussions had not taken place with city management or elected officials, he believes combining the utilities would be more efficient and potentially less costly.
“Water is a cost-based utility,” Garner said. “The lower the cost we can do our business the lower costs can be for our customers.”
The move would put Long Beach in a group of other large Southern California cities including Los Angeles, Riverside, Anaheim and Pasadena that have consolidated municipal utilities.
Garner, who previously served as the head of the city’s gas and oil department, said the two departments will sometimes dig up city streets years apart while servicing pipelines, a redundancy that could be eliminated with consolidation. It could also increase the city’s capacity to respond to emergencies like leaks and repairs because employees would have opportunities to cross-train, Garner said.
While gas rates are market-based, Garner said there could be more transparency with how those rates are set for customers. Typically they mirror the rates charged by the Southern California Gas Company but Garner said that in some instances they could be lower at the city level.
However, unlike the water department which has its own city commission that sets rates and presents its budget over the course of months of public meetings, the city’s Energy Resources department is usually presented in one night during the council’s budget cycle.
“If we consolidate it would be a much more transparent process at gas than it is today,” Garner said.
Placing a utilities consolidation onto the ballot will likely take months, but if the city chooses to move forward with the process it will have some time. The deadline to place a measure on the November 2022 ballot is in August 2022.