Long Beach utilities could be on the verge of an overhaul after the Board of Water Commissioners voted Thursday to allow the consideration of a merger between the city’s water and sewer utilities with the city’s gas and oil department.
A release put out by the city after the vote said that now the discussion will move from the water board to the city manager’s office and the city council as they review how a possible merger could be completed.
The city’s gas and water departments are managed separately but largely provide services to the same base of customers with the exception that the gas utility also provides services to Signal Hill residents. The release claims that if a merger were to be completed, customers could see a number of benefits including an increase in the amount of available resources when it comes to response times and possible rate adjustments, something that could be considered by a new utilities commission.
“Our city council over the years has asked us to continue to review our processes and services to find ways to eliminate duplications, create efficiencies and find cost savings,” Long Beach City Manager Pat West said in the release. “Combining the Gas and Water utilities under one umbrella does exactly this while creating enhanced and streamlined services for customers. It would be beneficial to all involved.”
Long Beach utility customers already pay a consolidated bill that includes water, gas and trash refuse fees but there could be other ways in which the merger could save time and money for the city.
Kevin Lee, public affairs officer for the city manager’s office, said that in combining the two utilities savings could be found by eliminating redundancies from everything including the vehicles and equipment being used to the digging up of streets to repair underground pipes. While there could be room for cross training for employees of both departments, Lee said that the merger is not expected to lead to layoffs of current employees.
There is no absolute date for which an action by the city council or city manager’s office would be taken on the water commissioners’ vote Thursday.
“The issue of consolidation has been the subject of extensive discussion among board members, the city manager, and the mayor,” said board president Robert Shannon. “Notably, Long Beach is the only city in California which separately manages and operates two municipal utilities. On balance, we believe that the City’s ratepayers stand to gain from this merger.”
It was also announced that the city’s gas and oil department would be rebranding to the Energy Resources Department.
The merging of the two utilities would have no impact on the fees the city assesses to the two utilities to use city-owned rights of way, something the city has been sued over recently. The water and sewer line access fees ended in the city settling the suit and agreeing to transfer money back to the water department over the course of several years and the challenge to the fees charged to the gas department is still working its way through the courts.
The water and sewer line issue will ultimately be decided by voters this year as the city council opted to place a charter reform on the ballot that would clarify language in the city’s charter that would outline the annual transfers from city utility funds to the general fund.
Like the transferring of fees, the merger would also require a charter amendment so an possible consolidation of utilities in the city would need voter approval at the ballot box likely pushing any merger to next year if the council is successful in putting the issue on the ballot this year.