Revenue Bond Oversight
|A GPS-generated snap shot of San Francisco taxis shows a typical Friday night peak-time concentration of taxi-cabs in the north-east quadrant.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is failing to properly regulate the taxi cab industry. This must change immediately, otherwise the current cab model, with its many positive externalities for San Francisco, will disappear.
A recent agreement by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) with an e-hail (Lyft) provider of ride-sharing (taxi surrogate) has potentially made every private car in California a taxi. The CPUC states that it has transportation jurisdiction over public highways and streets connecting points in California that do not cross interstate borders. The SFMTA assumed regulatory control over San Francisco taxis on March 1, 2009 when it took over the functions of the former Taxicab Commission.
A recent agreement by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) with an e-hail (Lyft) provider of ride-sharing (taxi surrogate) has potentially made every private car in California a taxi … San Francisco taxicabs face incredible competition from these transit-alternatives … Taxis are already required to have many public safeguards such as high-levels of insurance, workers-compensation, redundant systems, qualified and police-vetted drivers etc, attributes not yet quantified with its ad hoc competitors.”
San Francisco taxicabs face incredible competition from these transit-alternatives. Some are legal under the permissive CPUC umbrella and many are illegal, mainly because there is insufficient enforcement. The SFMTA has no discernible regulatory process. SFMTA reaction to this competitive tsunami is usually counter-productive for the cab industry. Taxis are already required to have many public safeguards such as high-levels of insurance, workers-compensation, redundant systems, qualified and police-vetted drivers etc, attributes not yet quantified with its ad hoc competitors.
Every time the SFMTA forces the cab industry to accept an additional mandate it is taxing the industry by adding to the cost of doing business. Economists tell us that at each price, these additive marginal costs decrease supply, just like any tax on doing business. These taxes seem to be aimed more at transferring revenues from the taxis to the SFMTA for debt relief than enhancing the efficiency of the cabs.
On Tuesday March 19, 2013 the SFMTA legislated that all taxis must provide instantaneous (six seconds) data to the SFMTA. The SFMTA will develop and run a centralized database and cab-application (app). This app and data base will be 100 percent under the control of the SFMTA. The SFMTA state they will seek competitive bids from vendors to build the app. Data for this application will be provided free to the SFMTA by the cab companies. This is yet another tax on doing business and will allow the SFMTA to expand its already bloated and overpaid bureaucracy and get involved in an entrepreneurial enterprise with which they have no experience. This is a sector that does not need to be socialized at taxpayer expense.
The SFMTA claims this will make cabs more available to San Francisco and in degree be a substitute for adding new cabs. The cab companies argued that they can and are developing better (while maintaining brand recognition) apps, and if the SFMTA allowed them to require credit card prepayment (as required by their competitors) both riders and drivers would benefit. There is also privacy (corporate and individual) and fairness concerns in centralizing these data in the hands of a government agency.
The intent of the Board of Supervisors in passing the ordinance “Transferring the powers and duties of the Taxi Commission to the Municipal Transportation Agency” was not to have the SFMTA develop opportunistic ways to use the taxicab industry to pay down the non-taxi debt incurred by the SFMTA, or make taxis a test tube for failed USSR-type regulations, but to implement, as stated, policies to achieve “excellence” and “accountability.”
A GPS-generated snap shot of San Francisco taxis shows a typical Friday night peak-time concentration of taxi-cabs in the north-east quadrant. The average productivity (total time carrying passengers to total available time) of the San Francisco taxi fleet during the peak Friday and Saturday nights is nearly 40 percent higher than the average, non-peak, Monday to Sunday. The City Controller, under the Taxicab Commission, issued biannual Taxi Industry Reports. In these reports the Controller stated that SF taxis averaged 30 paying passenger rides per day. Statistical evidence obtained through GPS meter-clicks shows that the largest cab company averages 44 rides per day. Taxis have become very efficient. There are just not enough of them.
One interpretation of Say’s Law is that supply creates its own demand. Actually the demand is there, it just has not yet been met. The famous Ford Edsel – the demand was there, but the market did not evaluate it at the cost of producing. This idea seems to have great legitimacy and relevance in San Francisco. There is clearly an unmet demand for taxis in San Francisco. The issuance of more regular taxi medallions, with a decrease in costly and irrelevant encumbrances by the SFMTA, would disperse this cluster phenomenon (as shown in the GPS diagram) into the other areas of San Francisco. San Francisco does not need more anti-competitive activities (centralized dispatch), it needs more regular cabs and less misplaced economic regulation.
A major first move in regulating taxis by the SFMTA was to set up a “short-term” pilot project to allow the buying and selling (medallion holder - age based) of medallions at a fixed price of $250,000. The transfer fee was set at twenty-percent, fifteen-percent going to the SFMTA, and five-percent to a Driver Fund. This program also allowed the SFMTA to sell up to sixty-medallions, revoked or unissued and to use these funds in their debt reduction program. According to the SFMTA, this would “generate emergency funding” required by the SFMTA. Known by its real purpose, it is paying down a deficit unrelated to the vibrant and non-subsidized, self-sustaining taxi-industry. No rigorous asset valuation was made to set the $250,000 (maybe even an auction process?). At best it was a guess. These transfer fees and direct sales are in large an involuntary transfer from taxis to the other parts of the financially ailing SFMTA.
In late 2012 SFMTA allowed medallion holders, 60 and over, to sell their medallion to eligible drivers for $300,000. The SFMTA advised that these funds would be used for transportation initiatives and for the taxi industry. The SFMTA will collect thirty-percent of all sales. Approximately 300 medallions have been transferred in these so called sales programs. The SFMTA micromanages the entire exchange process and even qualifies participating lending institutes.
Fares have been increased once by the SFMTA. The allowable gate (lease to driver) charged by companies has not changed since 2007. There has been no proper public convenience and necessity (PC&N) hearing on these matters. The last gate increase in 2007 was tied to the cab companies committing to huge investments to green (fuel efficient and environmentally friendly vehicles) the fleet. Regulatory gate lag since 1999 has cost the two largest taxi companies (Yellow and Luxor) approximately $70 million.
Taxi drivers often bemoan the disparity between what Muni drivers earn (plus benefits) and what a cabbie makes. It seems that sustaining these inflated Muni remuneration packages has now fallen significantly on the cab industry to subsidize. This forced cross-subsidization from cabs to Muni might well fall under the banner of “no new local taxation without a vote” and thus violate the mandates of 1996 Proposition A, which is a California constitutional amendment.
Brian Browne was coauthor of 2002 Prop P and former member of the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee it created.
That Never Was
Tony Hall, in the November issue of the WSO, is correct in stating the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) is acting illegally. He should know; he placed Proposition P, the enabling legislation, on the ballot in November 2002.
There is a complete disconnect between what this Committee does and what the voters approved it to do in passing 2002 Proposition P. The correlation between implementation and the legislative mandate is negative. The RBOC has become a smoke screen for the many failures and dalliances of the SFPUC. In the expenditure of revenue bonds, there is no real ratepayer advocate acting in good faith on your behalf to oversee this bureaucratic Titanic as it indebts you to the tune of approximately $15 billion.
During World War 2 the British conceived the idea (“Operation Mincemeat” aka “The Person who never was”) of reinventing the identity of a human cadaver to convince the Germans that the next invasion by allied forces would be against Sardinia and Greece rather than the intended target of Sicily. The cadaver (now a fictitious Major William Martin) was dropped off the coast of Spain with false papers and plans. The ruse worked so well that even after Sicily was invaded the Germans still believed Sardinia and Greece were the intended targets. The RBOC is San Francisco’s financial Major William Martin. It is a mean-spirited disguise to fool the public into complacency that their revenue bond dollars are being well spent.
The Board of Supervisors could have allowed this fictitious committee, as mandated by 2002 Proposition P, to ignobly pass into the sunset on January 1, 2013. Instead the BoS, led by Supervisors Farrell, Kim, and Campos, is resuscitating it for another three years to ensure there is no real ratepayer advocate overseeing the gigantic expenditures being made from bond revenues to supposedly ensure our water, power, and wastewater infrastructure is fully rehabilitated and able to complement the economic and social growth of San Francisco and its peninsula customers. The financial and implementation smokescreen remains in place.
I disagree with Tony Hall that the current legislation is sufficient to ensure full oversight. It may well be sufficient in a world of idealists with hearts as pure as High Sierra snow, but not in the real world of high-finance, political intrigue, and backdoor dealings.”
I disagree with Tony Hall that the current legislation is sufficient to ensure full oversight. It may well be sufficient in a world of idealists with hearts as pure as High Sierra snow, but not in the real world of high-finance, political intrigue, and backdoor dealings. Some immediate remedies come to mind.
Step 1 - A Charter Amendment must be passed to give voters the right to issue all revenue bonds by approval at the ballot box. This goes a lot further than just rescinding Tom Ammiano’s 2002 Proposition E, which stripped voters of the right to issue SFPUC revenue bonds, but would require voter approval for all City and County of San Francisco revenue bonds.
Step 2- All loopholes must be eliminated. San Francisco voters, who in 2002 believed they were actually approving the water fix-up (Proposition A for $1.6B) and making financing easier (Proposition E) were hoodwinked by our representatives. The state (driven by politicians with ambitions exceeding the narrow confines of the City) had passed 2002-SB1870 creating a Regional Financing Authority (RFA) to lend money to the Hetch Hetchy water system regardless of the November 2002 election outcome. It was really a very cruel hoax on those folks who thought they really had a say in how the Hetch Hetchy fix-up would proceed.
Had both A and E failed, the massive expenditures by the SFPUC would still have taken place through the financial mechanisms of the RFA, and ratepayers would have to repay RFA loans in rate increases. This type of sneaky end-around-end smokescreen must be effectively blocked. Bottom line, in 2002 there was a con game pulled on the voters. Failure of both Props A (1.6 billion Hetch Hetchy fix-up) and Prop E (stripping the right of voters to approve revenue bonds) would have had the RFA as an insurance policy.
Step - 3 RBOC meeting minutes must be outsourced to a reliable and bonded transcription entity. The omissions and edited minutes of the RBOC official meetings are legend. These scant and uninformative minutes provide an extremely biased and self-serving history. A goal must be to have all RBOC meeting audio tapes transcribed and compared to the actual minutes.
Step – 4 The RBOC meetings must be held at user friendly times, at City Hall, and televised. There must be a complete break between the SFPUC and the RBOC. The actual language of 2002 Proposition P is clear that it must be independent. If the Founding Father of the Republic had interpreted independence as done with the RBOC, King George III would have retained veto powers and Congress would have met in London.
There are many more steps. A ballot measure to restore financing authority to San Francisco voters should include a call for ending this current charade and possibly creating a real oversight committee with the ratepayers as its clients. Not the SFPUC, which is the current setup.
The theory of the firm acknowledges that shirking requires oversight. Managers and oversight groups provide this function. That is they act as anti-shirkers. We need real anti-shirkers, not members of the group most likely to benefit from shirking.
It is time to put an end to illusionary “Operation Mincemeats” like the RBOC, and end committee hijacking and committee nullification.
The economic and social costs of these oversight failures are immense. These costs must be internalized by the ratepayers. Meanwhile the responsible resume misfits will be retired on your benevolence. Just look, for example, at the negative externalities flowing from the secretly negotiated 2009 Master Water Sales Agreement (MWSA), the largest contract ever entered into by San Francisco.
The change from the utility method to the cash method for allocating costs has clearly enhanced the playground for the financial types and clouded the issue of system ownership. A major catch phrase to cover many situations is encumbered. Its real meaning is as clear as mud.
Giving the peninsula customers an ad infinitum assurance exceeding 10 percent of their historical volumetric takes of Hetch Hetchy water was achieved by the secret negotiators, by cutting SF’s historical takes to an assurance that is approximately 15 percent less than historical takes. Both assurances sum to a number that is a statistical outlier, an event that occurs approximately 16 times every 100 years.
Brian Browne is a former member of the RBOC, firstname.lastname@example.org
Let the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee Sunset
The Westside Observer (WSO) has been out front with articles, by multiple authors, criticizing the effectiveness of the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC). The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) has shown its serious sensitivity to these criticisms of both the RBOC and the SFPUC by direct or indirect rebuttals in the WSO. These rebuttals have not dented the stinging criticisms of the SFPUC/RBOC. There was always light: 2002 Prop P mandated the RBOC sunset on 1/1/13.
District 2 Supervisor, Mark Farrell, however, has proposed an ordinance to amend the SF Administrative Code Sec. 5A.36 to extend the sunset date of the RBOC to 1/1/2018 from its current and eagerly-sought demise date of 1/1/2013.
We do need real, transparent, and most of all, independent revenue-bond expenditure oversight. Let this committee benevolently “pass” on 1/1/2013, but let its deeds be reviewed in light of the charter it was assigned in 2002, versus what it actually did 2003-2012. This is also known as public accountability”
The RBOC was supposed to act as the independent ratepayers’ advocate in the matter of revenue bond expenditures. It was placed on the ballot in 2002 by then-Supervisor Tony Hall. It passed with a significant majority. Tony has since disowned the RBOC as having no correlation with what he intended. During the mayoral debates he questioned its legality. Two authors of the enabling legislation describe it as a compliant lap dog of the SFPUC.
Nullification of a major city financial and supposedly independent oversight committee merits immediate, independent, and transparent investigation. It is hoped that the Civil Grand Jury will undertake this task. The Board of Supervisors should support such an investigation. The Board should also withhold revenue bond-funding power from the SFPUC until a proper investigation of the nexus (and impact) between the RBOC, SFPUC, Controller (CSA) and other government and private entities is conducted.
All who proclaim that this committee has been unswervingly true to 2002 Prop P should welcome this intense and open investigation. The Supervisors, by staying the revenue bond funding powers of the SFPUC during this period, will greatly relieve the increasing anxiety among ratepayers, who are becoming overwhelmed by utility rate hikes, spikes which appear to be the tip of the iceberg when all these billions, generated from the sale of revenue bonds, (some sitting in negative interest-bearing accounts), are properly amortized (versus innovative trading of income streams) into the rate structure.
The increasing issuance of revenue bonds by all entities in San Francisco is a growing concern. Seems San Francisco is creating a TARP-type relief system, to be repaid by future user fees, to cover up past and current inattention to infrastructure problems, and also to act as a “Keynesian” employment multiplier for public-servant positions that have become redundant in the dynamics of recession and technological change.
The Ethics Commission has taken stage center in the very public Ross Mirkarimi hearing. But off camera, the Controller’s City Services Auditor (CSA) has high jacked the contracting functions for the RBOC. The vehicle allowing this high jacking was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the RBOC and the Controller’s CSA in which the SFPUC agreed to pay the CSA for time and effort spent doing so. An inquiry to the Ethics Commission asked: How can the SFPUC justify these expenditures as part of their rate structure? Rates should only include reasonable and allowable costs, not expenditures that make “independent oversight” a joke. The Ethics Commission referred athe inquiry to the Whistle Blowers (CSA), the very organization who was benefitting from the funding. The Whistle Blowers referred the inquiry back to the SFPUC. An even darker cloud looms on the regulatory horizon when it is realized the CSA budget is a percent of all city departments, including the SFPUC.
We do need real, transparent, and most of all, independent revenue-bond expenditure oversight. Let this committee benevolently “pass” on 1/1/2013, but let its deeds be reviewed in light of the charter it was assigned in 2002, versus what it actually did 2003-2012. This is also known as public accountability.
Brian Browne is a former member of the RBOC, email@example.com
All in the Family II
Let the games begin (cautiously)
Turning on the City TV channel I was surprised to hear a former City Attorney complain to members of Budget and Finance Committee, 2/15/12, about the attachment of the 8 Washington Street project to Item 9 “Resolution to Intention to Form Waterfront Infrastructure Financing District.” This poison pill was excised at the request of David Chiu and members of the public.
Anyone living in the Financial District is aware that the 8 Washington Project (Sea Wall Lot 351), diminishing existing open access tennis courts, swim pools, and recreational areas with a high-priced and a very tall condominium complex is roundly opposed by many as both a bayside eyesore and a further depletion of city sporting and recreational facilities.
Disney learned this when he built Disneyland in Anaheim. He did not buy the surrounding area. Hotels rushed in and internalized the revenues associated with Disney’s concept."
The huge public-development expenditures to refurbish the Embarcadero were intended to create wonderful externalities to be internalized by the greatest number of citizens. These public funds were not intended to create an environment for an exclusive few who can afford these well-situated condos. To allow the waterfront to be obstructed by this complex will be to rob a great number of folks of their current heritage – the very beautiful Embarcadero. It represents a significant wealth transfer which is being perpetrated as a function of political muscle. This one project is the beginning of a slippery slope of high rise clutter.
Disney learned this when he built Disneyland in Anaheim. He did not buy the surrounding area. Hotels rushed in and internalized the revenues associated with Disney’s concept. When he developed Disney World in Orlando he wisely purchased vast acres of surrounding land to ensure opportunistic types could not internalize the external effects of being near Disney World.
When city planners received public funding to develop the Embarcadero, it was understood that opportunistic developers would not be able to profit by crowding out the promised beauty. If the city allows 8 Washington to be developed, it should make the developers pay the full opportunity cost of explicit development funds and implicit loss of public-good access to the existing ambience. In other words – 8 Washington approval will mean a massive wealth transfer from all citizens to a very few, possibly buying these condos for speculative purposes.
This unexpected insertion of 8 Washington raised the questions of what is this special district and why do we need it? A more bottom line question: Who will benefit from the planning, financing and implementations of the expanded America’s Cup project? Who will pay?
This special district, submitted by the mayor to the BoS, is authorized by California AB 664 (2.17.12); entitled, “Ammiano. Infrastructure and financing districts. America’s Cup venues.” This Act declares, among other things: “… portions of the San Francisco waterfront, are characterized by deteriorating conditions that cannot be remedied by private investments alone, and require the use of public financing mechanisms to finance the rectification the deteriorating conditions….”
The financing mechanisms allowed under the Act are similar to the menu of municipal financing approaches currently employed by San Francisco for developing projects. Revenues identified in AB 664 are “--- taxes, fees, charges, and other revenues….” Implementation of this financing district may fall under 1996 Proposition 218 and must be voted on.
One innovative approach being offered by the America’s Cup proponents is philanthropy to offset City expenses. The organizers have promised $32 million in three payments $12MM, 10MM, and $10MM spread over approximately three years. What, if anything, will these generous folks want in return for their donations? The city proceeding with the promise of $32 million in revenue funding from possible charity should be analyzed as a viable funding approach.
One public speaker made a reasoned comment that the race could proceed with minimal public involvement. Adding the Bay, basically—asis—was ready to stage the race. Based on his experience in sailboat racing, he delineated reasonable and affordable logistics that minimized much of the planned expenditures. Voices like this would gain greater access to the public awareness should the “final plan” be brought before the voters.
Of great concern is the naming spree by politicians of publicly-financed facilities. Residents are voicing increasing concern that they have no say in the naming of facilities, which they helped birth and for which they are paying. All proposed public facility (parks, buildings, walkways, etc.) names or name changes should be submitted to the public for voter approval. We all own these facilities, not just inside politicians with political clout.
A historical review of public financing and its efficacy might provide some clues as to expected outcomes from this new financing authority. In 2001 Senate Bill 1870 became law. SB1870 established a Regional Financing Authority (RFA),basically telling San Francisco voters that even if they disapproved or wanted mitigated the proposed billion ($) in the proposed fix-up debt for the Hetch Hetchy system, their will would be ignored via SB1870 financing. SB1870 was sponsored by peninsula water wholesale customers with much support from San Francisco regionalists.
To ensure voters no longer participated in issuing these type revenue bonds, Tom Ammiano’s 2002 Proposition E explicitly gave this power to the Board. Oversight will never return to the City until voter rights to issue debt are returned as prior to 2002 Proposition E.
What was originally intended as a sailing race has become an expensive and difficult to decipher development project. The secretive insertion of 8 Washington into approval of the financing district may be the tip of the iceberg. Yes, the America’s Cup is a brilliant spectacle – but at what price? The real cost is what we have to give up. To paraphrase Adam Smith, when folks speak of the public good I fear for my own personal well being.
Brian Browne is a former member of the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee, feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
All in the Family
The San Francisco Public Utilities (SFPUC) requested the six-term chair, Ms. Aimee Brown, of the supposedly independent Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC), write a rebuttal to my “misconceptions” as printed in the Westside Observer (WSO). A sunshine request revealed this article was a collaborative effort between the SFPUC and Ms. Brown.
In early 2011, the RBOC decision-makers, without notice, and off-camera, stopped ongoing negotiations with the University of California Berkeley (UCB) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to do a reality check on SFPUC’s plans and operations. The RBOC, instead, hired the Controller’s City Services Auditor (CSA), also known as the Whistle Blowers.
The universities gave freely of their valuable time and effort to understand the complexities of the SFPUC’s plans, its business model, and developed a complete draft-proposal. They did not get a thank you, nor apology, nor even an official notification from the RBOC.
The CSA was awarded a lucrative memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the RBOC. This MOU basically made the CSA the sole vendor for RBOC contracts. The RBOC majority refused to pay the CSA for pre-MOU costs. Staff of the SFPUC, at the RBOC meeting, agreed to pick up these pre-MOU costs of the CSA.
The CSA was created in 2003 by Proposition C, aka the Whistle Blower legislation. The CSA has a budget of 0.002 percent of the entire city budget (including the SFPUC). This means the CSA budget is approximately $13 million dollars. The CSA legislative charge is to investigate any and all city departments.
Immediate questions which come to mind are: Is using the CSA compliant with the RBOC’s legislative directive to seek outside independent consultants? Why does the CSA require RBOC funds to do what it is already funded and mandated to do? Is the CSA comparable to the opportunity cost of displacing the universities? Hiring an academic and working as a private consultant with prior commercial ties to the SFPUC does not overcome this latter concern.
A major issue is who pays the bill when the SFPUC expends funds for these types of questionable activities. The SFPUC is an enterprise organization. Its revenues are derived from rates. It claims to use a cost of service approach wherein only reasonable and allowable costs may be paid from rates. It is difficult to rationalize how costs generated in rebutting my articles and pre-MOU costs (to hire consultants for its independent oversight committee) may be classified as reasonable and allowable and then blended into your water and wastewater rates.
I called the Ethics Commission and was told to check with the city Whistle Blowers, aka CSA. I did, and was told to check with the Commission (SFPUC). This clearly creates an ever imploding spiral. This does however, highlight the need for real regulatory oversight.
The RBOC will sunset on 1/1/2013. Its life can be extended by the Board of Supervisors (BoS). The BoS should let this Committee, mercifully for the ratepayers, sunset on 1/1/2013. Committee nullification is not good public policy. A new and effective regulatory body should be developed that fulfills the intended charter of being a ratepayer advocate in the expenditure of revenue bonds.
Brian Browne is the Board of Supervisor’s appointed Member of the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee
An Alternative View
Readers may remember the September WSO article "Dracula Guards the Blood Bank" catalyzed a meeting (9/20/11) with the City Controller, Benjamin Rosenfield, and a group of activists (Joan Girardot, Nancy Wuerfel, Philip Ward, Esq. and the author). The main topic was to question the legality of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) and the Controller. This MOU makes the Controller the sole source vendor for RBOC contracts. This inside-dependent relationship is in direct contradiction to what was intended in creating an independent RBOC (2002 Proposition P) with a mandate to use outside-independent consultants and, if necessary (under certain mandated conditions), halt the issuance of revenue bonds.
The Controller said he agreed to this MOU as a result of the RBOC chair approaching him and requesting such services. In my September article I mention how this approach was done off-camera and at the cost of using the University of California as an independent, qualified, and outside consultant. In the face of legal arguments by the participants that this type MOU was not intended in 2002 Proposition P, the Controller agreed to seek another legal opinion from the City Attorney. This legal opinion, when presented, will be reviewed by independent attorneys and interested ratepayers/citizens.
Meanwhile, the failure to implement Proposition P as intended has surfaced in the mayoral debates. Tony Hall, who regards Proposition P as his jewel in the crown of his many legislative endeavors as a supervisor, has expressed publicly that the RBOC has been hijacked by both the Controller and SFPUC. He believes that this takeover has robbed the voters and markets of real oversight. He has expressed the opinion that this matter is so serious as to be considered corruption, and if elected he will take immediate corrective measures.
Meanwhile the City Attorney and other members of this committee push on with proposed legislation and lobby efforts to extend this debacle past its sunset of 1/1/13. We do need oversight, but not from a group that have habitually ignored the mandates of the enabling legislation.
The RBOC and the SFPUC are reacting superficially to criticism of their codependency. The RBOC did hire (negotiating initially off-camera and in secret) a UC faculty member, with past ties to the SFPUC, and working for his own consulting company (not the independent, multi-disciplinary UC group as originally proposed). The SFPUC (Commission) selected a group of folks labeled the Independent Review Committee (SFPUC-IRC). The RBOC virtually accepts this SFPUC constituted group (SFPUC-IRC) as their own independent review committee. These thinly veiled, non-structural actions to give a PR perception of the RBOC being independent do nothing to calm market and ratepayer concerns. Au contraire.
Brian Browne is the Supervisor's appointee to the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee.
The Chair of RBOC Responds to Brian Browne
Independent, Transparent Oversight
The Revenue Bond Oversight Committee
In 2002, San Francisco voters approved Proposition P and established the SFPUC Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC). Our job is to ensure that the SFPUC spends bond proceeds appropriately and complies with prudent financial management. The Committee meets on the third Monday of the month at 9:30 AM on the 4th floor of the SFPUC building at 1155 Market Street. The Committee abides by all sunshine requirements in accordance with San Francisco law and we pride ourselves on being open, accessible and above all else, transparent to the City and its ratepayers. In advance of each meeting, agendas are posted on the SFPUC website, the Board of Supervisors' bulletin board in City Hall and in the Main Public Library government document's section.
Proposition P authorizes the RBOC to review and audit revenue-bond fund expenditures. Our current principal focus is related to the $4.6B Water System Improvement Program (WSIP), the seismic and reliability upgrade to the Hetch Hetchy Water System. Our current audits are also starting to review the Wastewater Program (SSIP) as it gears up. The Committee conducts its oversight of SFPUC revenue bond expenditures through detailed audits and reports that are funded by a 1/20th of 1% fee on all bond issuances.
I have been a member of the RBOC since the Committee was formed in 2003 and I have served as Committee Chair since 2007.
The RBOC is an independent committee whose members are appointed by the Mayor, Board of Supervisors, Budget Analyst and Controller's Offices and BAWSCA. The Committee is composed of diverse professionals all with varying backgrounds and expertise that we leverage to produce thorough, effective and timely financial audits and analyses of the SFPUC's bond-funded projects. As mandated by Proposition P, the Committee members have expertise relevant to the work of the Committee that includes experience in economics, the environment, construction, project management, auditing, accounting and project finance. The RBOC is a democratically-run committee and all agenda items are subject to majority vote. The diversity in backgrounds and the constituencies that the members represent, foster productive and often vigorous debate. However, despite this diversity of viewpoints, the Committee has always come together to move forward and find consensus on projects and the scopes of our audits and financial analyses.
In the past, most Committee members have publically commended the work of our independent consulting team. Their audits have found the SFPUC in compliance with the City law, policies and procedures as well as industry best practices. The Committee has had detailed discussions with the General Manager's office about any issues or areas for further improvement that our audits reveal. In fact, we make recommendations to senior staff so they can monitor and remedy any findings and make it easier for the public to understand what is happening with each project. Significantly, most of our recommendations have been incorporated into the SFPUC's practices in order to improve its management of bond-funded construction projects, which ultimately benefits ratepayers. The work our Committee has generated is also presented annually and in public to the SFPUC Commission.
The RBOC is currently engaged in multiple oversight projects. We have contracted with the City Services Auditor, in their role as independent auditors, to review project expenditures and appropriations and project management costs related to several bond-funded WSIP and SSIP projects. Concurrent with these audits, the RBOC is conducting an intensive review of the SFPUC's construction management processes with the assistance of an Independent Review Panel of industry leaders. Included in this team are faculty from UC Berkeley and Stanford University. The review will examine three areas critical to the successful completion of large-scale construction projects: change management, risk management and project cost, schedule and contingencies; this report is expected to be finished in November.
All of this critical oversight work is ongoing while construction for the Water System Improvement Program is reaching its zenith. We're also beginning to plan for our oversight responsibilities for SSIP. Now, more than ever, we need the input of concern-minded San Francisco residents who wish to lend a hand to help ensure that the WSIP program is completed on-time and on-budget. The vital financial auditing and analyses work of our Committee has never been more valuable to ratepayers and the City than now. Please consider joining us on the third Monday morning of each month. Our Committee is often frequented by members of the public; any and all San Francisco residents are welcome to sit at the table with our Committee members and participate in our monthly meetings or in our working group conferences. Thank you for your attention.
Aimee Brown is the Chair of the RBOC, she has served on the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, VP at Goldman Sachs, Principal at Artemis Capital Group and Managing Director at RBC Dain Rauscher. and the National Association of Securities Dealer's Fixed Income Committee.
Dracula Guards the Blood Bank
The City needs real versus politicized regulatory oversight. No oversight is better than the illusion of oversight.
The imperfections of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) regulatory oversight are often noted. These regulatory failings often pale in comparison with those of San Francisco's self-regulating system.
A case in point is the Public Utilities Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC). It was created by 2002 Prop P (sponsored by then supervisor Tony Hall) to provide independent, outside, and full public view of how revenue bonds issued by the SFPUC are spent.
This committee meets in the bowels of the SFPUC at 9:30am on Monday mornings. The RBOC has never held a public outreach meeting nor has it ever used outside-independent consultants. Both of which are mandated by its enabling legislation. Staff members attend in abundance (on the ratepayers' purse) and are treated like members. Their level of interference significantly counters what the voters assumed they were voting on.
The first three RBOC contracts were awarded to the same consultant. This consultant was chosen at a non-agendized meeting. Two RBOC members from the SFPUC and the Controller voted.
Without critiquing the products produced by the consultant, all three RBOC processes were flawed. The third contract, for the supposedly independent RBOC, was signed by the SFPUC in April 2009. After numerous entreaties to the City Attorney, this contract came before the full committee and public at an agendized meeting.
Following this 2009 procedural debacle, the RBOC Chair e agreed to improve the contractual process. The Contracts Working Group (CWG) of the RBOC contacted all major California universities with a request to help the RBOC determine if revenue bonds were being properly spent and if the SFPUC could meet its legal mandates: complete the Water Supply Improvement Program (WSIP) on time 12/31/15 and on budget ($4.6B).
Enter Major Universities In the 2010 RBOC-CWG Report, what really happened with the universities was ignored: This subcommittee during 2010 openly engaged in many significant exchanges with UCLA and UCB for independent, multidisciplinary, and outside consulting services.
Serious consideration for hiring UCLA and UCB did happen. the agenda item for the meeting of the RBOC-CWG reads: "Discussion and Possible Action concerning UC Berkeley and UCLA Joint proposal to development a Request for Proposal (RFP) concerning the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) and water System Improvement Program (WSIP)."
The minutes for this meeting state: "Chair Rhorer stated that the RBOC would draft a general scope of work based on the current discussion and bring before the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee to determine how to enter into a contract with UC Berkeley."
On August 17, 2010, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods (CSFN) passed the following resolution unanimously:
"Resolved, that the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods strongly urges the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee to enter into a contract with designated experts at UC Berkeley and UCLA to conduct a thorough organizational review and status report of the WSIP (Water System Improvement Program) to determine if the projects can be completed on budget and by December 31, 2015, as mandated by State Law. Passed August 17 2010, Unanimous."
This resolution was delivered to RBOC Chair, Aimee Brown, of the RBOC, at the September 2010 meeting by Joan Girardot, Chair, CSFN, Water Task Force.
These neighborhood organizations wanted real oversight. These ratepayers were just ignored without discussion.
Exit University Assistance The UCB-UCLA effort just disappeared somewhere in the winter of 2011. It died without comment. No agenda item. No discussion. No apologies to UCB and UCLA for their great interest and hard work. Also, the CWG vanished.
Would the multi-disciplinary professors and their brilliant PhD (independent) students have opened an embarrassing can of worms? We will probably never know.
Enter City Services Auditor Based on Brown Act sunshine requests it appears that a decision was made, off camera (via meetings, phone calls, and emails, etc.), to dump UCB/UCLA and cede control of RBOC contracting work and procedures to the SF Controller's City Services Auditor (CSA). The first appearance of the Controller's CSA staff was on a vague, non-decipherable agenda item, but at the meeting, it became clear this RBOC-Controller union was already well underway.
The CSA, created by 2003 Prop C (Whistleblowers Prop) is funded by 1/5 of 1% of every City budget including the SFPUC. It is inside, not outside, it is dependent, not independent: city bureaucrats monitor themselves. This memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the RBOC and the CSA is arguably illegal. The legal language in the two propositions does not appear to support this MOU.
The SFPUC stated that they have issued $3,327,500,000 in WSIP revenues bonds. It has spent a total of $1,549,000,000 on WSIP. The SFPUC has deposited $1,778,500,000 of bond funds in a Treasures Account earning 1.25% interest. The SFPUC pays an estimated average of 4.5% to bondholders for these funds. This means the ratepayer must pick up $57,801,250 per annum in negative interest costs.
Why does the SFPUC require such a large amount of liquidity at such a high cost to ratepayers? This question requires considerably more analysis. It must be framed in the context that the SFPUC has a commercial paper (CP) draw of $500,000,000. The Federal Reserve estimates CP costs at less than 1% per annum.
When this interest differential versus commercial paper situation was brought to the attention (email) of the City Controller on 8/16/2011, he replied, "I obviously understand the issue you are raising related to the use of the CP program in lieu of bonds, and will take a look at the issue myself." Why did it take this reminder, in that he oversees the RBOC's new one-stop-shopping consultant per the recent MOU between the RBOC and the Controller?
Master Water Sales Agreement The failure of this committee to hold a true, un-orchestrated, public outreach meeting on the 2009 Master Water Sales Agreement (MWSA) between San Francisco and its suburban water customers is an oversight that must be readdressed.
San Francisco (the state's most conservation-conscious city) was treated unfairly in the MWSA. SF's actual supplies of Hetch Hetchy water deliveries were cut by over 10% and ceded to the peninsula at Hetch Hetchy system costs. Their historical use of water was increased by 10% as a result of this "transfer." SF must replace these supplies at costs up to 10 times Hetch Hetchy water costs.
This committee also refused to demand that the SFPUC include its 1/20 of 1% in the issuance cost for Build America Bonds (BABs) as allowed under the America Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). No document in law (2009 ARRA) or IRS code justified this exclusion.
To avoid a sustained floor fight the SFPUC, with compliance from the RBOC, agreed to accept a transfer from the SFPUC from other bond issues. 2002 Proposition P is unequivocal 1/20 of 1% of all revenue bonds issued by the SFPUC. This is not what 2002 Proposition P mandated.
The RBOC sunsets in 2013, however, the RBOC has asked the Board of Supervisors (allowed under 2002 P) to extend their sunset. To extend this particular committee past its sunset 2013 date would be a disservice to San Francisco.
We do need real oversight. A first step must be to rescind 2002 Proposition E (the blank check), which stripped San Francisco residents of the right to vote on the issuance of revenue bonds and handed this authority to the Commission and Board.
Brian Browne is the Board of Supervisor's appointee to the oversight board. Feedback: email@example.com
The Medallion Muddle
For years, San Franciscans have been complaining about their taxi service. Those complaints used to be made in the form of letters to the editor. Now, they go to numerous electronic websites. These complaints signal out every taxi company able to afford a Yellow Page advertisement and a phone number. It is often very difficult to get a cab on Friday night, in the rain, rush-hours, in many of the outlying suburbs, other strategic times such as medical visits, worship, etc. Who is to blame for these unmet demands? Should we be yelling at the taxicabs or the city bureaucrats who regulate the San Francisco taxi industry? Both?
San Francisco regulators have authorized the issuance of 1,500 taxi medallions. This means there are only 1,500 taxi cabs to service San Francisco residents, tourists, businesses, medical, entertainment, airports, and all other emergency and non-emergency short trip requirements. The taxi companies, in general, have embraced hi-tech communication, computerized traffic monitoring algorithms, and web-based applications to increase efficiency and to bridge the numerous periods when demand exceed the finite supply of cabs. There seems to be decreasing returns on efficiency, even with these costly and efficient electronic and computerized enhancements.
The evidence is clear that by metering public discontent (advice to the cabbie and various complaint outlets) and the empirical data produced by these sophisticated computer systems, there are not enough cabs and these frequent shortfalls (many riders not picked up) can only be addressed by adding a substantial number of new cabs (medallions). Peak time medallions, an alternative being suggested by the regulators, is unworkable and extremely costly to administer. Industry managers and owners, monitoring their inability to service customer demand, believe that 1,000 additional medallions are required now. Without these additional cabs the customer-stranded rate is expected to worsen.
An increase of 1,000 in medallions will potentially increase driver employment by 4,000. One understated value of the taxi fleet is its contribution to homeland and city security. During WW1 the taxis of Paris rushed troops to the battle front to save the French capital. Many times in the history of San Francisco, while less spectacularly, our cabs have performed magnificently to meet emergency needs.
SFMTA now regulate all economic and non-economic aspects of the San Francisco taxi industry. It is in their power to increase the fleet size to satisfy most customer demand. SFMTA must also recognize that as a regulator, it must abolish regulatory lag which imposes an income loss on both drivers and owners. Fares and gate fees, which sustain drivers and companies, have remained stagnant. In real terms, factoring in the erosion of purchasing power by inflation, the revenues from fares and gates have decreased significantly. The SFMTA must establish a regular, non-discretionary, systematic, open, and well advertised public convenience and necessity (PC&N) hearing, on an annual or biannual basis. These taxi-specific PC&N hearings should consider in a formalized manner all economic and non-economic attributes which the City wishes to regulate. For periods between PC&N hearings there should be automatic changes in fares and gates based on appropriate economic indicators (CPI, PPI, etc.).
A PC&N hearing must be held immediately by the SFMTA to address, in an omnibus and systematic series of hearings, all the problems that regulatory transfer and neglect has caused this vital and entrepreneurial industry. The most pressing problems are regulatory reform, creating a regulatory system that is deterministic, not opportunistic, and adding a significant number of new medallions immediately.
Feedback: Brian Browne
From the Chicken Coop
The Revenue Bond Oversight Committee was created by 2002 Proposition P in a thrust led by Rich Bodisco, the Mayor's Infrastructure Task Force, Tony Hall (put the legislation on the ballot), Phil Ward, Sean Elsbernd, and the voters. It was the best chance to ensure fiscal oversight for huge expenditures of citizen wealth.
The Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) is finally getting attention. All for the good. After eight years the Board of Supervisors is considering its parental responsibility regarding who supports this committee, where it should live, and what it's supposed to be really doing.
For the first 8 plus years of its life, the RBOC has been a willing ward of the octopus-like SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The RBOC was intended to oversee and monitor the SFPUC's expenditure of revenue bonds on behalf of ratepayers. It meets monthly in the bowels of the SFPUC. Its voting system, notwithstanding the enabling legislation, has allowed this committee to remain inept as to its mandated mission and ensures that any opposition is muted.
Independent or co-opted? The RBOC has the power to pull the financial plug on the issuance of revenue bonds as a result of its independent audits. This is a contradiction in terms for this committee. Three contracts have been issued by this committee to the same consultant. None of those contractual processes were independent of SFPUC influence. The last independent contract was signed by the General Manager (April 2009) of the SFPUC without a full vote by the full committee. The City Attorney compelled the RBOC to bring this contract to the full committee for approval (September 2009).
Final Straw The SFPUC can pick the ratepayers' pockets almost at will. $4.6B for the Water Improvement Project, $4-$5B for the sewer overhaul plus power funding (unknown at this point) means $10B plus is not an overestimation of SFPUC spending plans. How much on power depends on the political will to implement Community Choice Aggregation (Migden AB117)? Water and wastewater estimates are at the $10B threshold — all to be funded by revenue bonds which are repaid through rate hikes.
The marginal increase per unit (748 gallons) of wholesale (city gate) water under a fixed coupon and term scenario (4.6% and 25 year) is shown below. The amount of water delivered (denominator in the $/unit) also affects cost. 239MGD (million gallons per day) is what SFPUC and the Peninsula forecast as the long-term Hetch Hetchy system reliabile delivery average based on hydrologic history and system integrity. 251 MGD is the average delivery of the Hetch Hetchy system for the 25 year period between the two water agreements (1984/2009) between San Francisco and its Peninsula customers. 265 MGD is the number used to set water assurances between the City and its suburban customers.
These amounts only include those increases required to service the $4.6 billion debt. Other embedded and escalated costs that increase rates are not included.
SFPUC has promised to fix San Francisco's aging Hetch Hetchy system by 12/31/2015. Without questioning the quality of the three prior RBOC studies, it was clear another study, by an independent team of dedicated researchers, was required immediately – a study that should ask and answer:
"Can the SFPUC complete the current Water Supply Improvement program on time (12/31/2015) and on budget ($4.6 Billion)?"
The Contracts Working Group (CWG -subcommittee) of the RBOC agreed that academia would be a productive place to look for such independent and overarching multidisciplinary input. Over a three-year process of requesting letters of interest and engaging in dialog with great universities. UCLA (Luskin Institute) and UC Berkeley (UCB) emerged as contenders. They agreed to co-submit. UCLA dropped out, due to work load, after the first rounds and a spirited, productive and intense negotiation continued with UCB. UCB requested, and the RBOC provided, a detailed history of all aspects of the WSIP. UCB then submitted an excellent draft scope of work. This entire process was the most transparent and competitive contractual process to date by the RBOC. It was abruptly terminated in mid-process, without real prior notification. It must be reinstated to gain back voter confidence in so-called independent oversight.
To bring this process to a final milestone, for contractual negotiations, and move forward toward a contract, a motion to hire UCB was made at the RBOC meeting of 1/24/11. It was defeated with only one affirmative vote (author). The usual naysayers appeared like well organized parrots. This occurrence at RBOC meetings is a regular menu item. Cost to ratepayers is yet to be quantified. Their statements clearly lacked detailed knowledge of the exhaustive search and negotiation process undertaken to date.
One contrarian rationalized away the idea of a systemic approach by saying the RBOC could only look at capital costs. This would mean the SFPUC could build a major dam in a dry river bed with revenue bonds and the RBOC could not ask why. Proposition P is about the efficacy of revenue bond expenditures. The question of debt service remaining inelastic over such a large price hike has never been properly addressed.
A previous study (2 years ago) by the SFPUC failed to adequately answer this question. It was based on very relatively rate changes, and the model innards were never revealed to this writer. If demand becomes elastic, even a 1 percent price increase would cause a greater than 1 percent decrease in demand and total system revenues after the rate (price) increase would decrease. Such a situation would be devastating for paying debt service. The professors were willing to do a thorough analysis of this frightening prospect.
The 44 member strong Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, after considering this academic thrust, unanimously endorsed using UCB and urged the RBOC to move forward immediately. An activist suggested that because of the time constraints and importance of the subject that the Board be asked ASAP to provide a legal exception (if required under law) because of the incredible importance of the subject, time constraints (RBOC sunsets on 12/31/2012 and WSIP must be legally completed by 12/31/15) and the unique and extensive set of skills found at UCB (together with other academic institutions).
This academia contract, which had taken three years, was DOA at the RBOC. Then a new and long-winded RFP appeared in the proposed agenda for the RBOC monthly meeting. Suspecting such a move, an email requesting proposed agenda items was sent to the Chair. No answer. Standard operating procedure for this "transparent" committee.
The RFP process is supposed to go through the subcommittee and not be usurped by the Chair. The RFP was a lengthy litany of unfocussed and eclectic items. It was out of context with the dynamics of required oversight. It appeared to give individual "officials" of the RBOC the right to issue work and purchase orders. Such powers, in a democracy, without a real constitution, render some stakeholders impotent. It also seemed to be camouflage for the abrupt cancelling of the effort with academia.
Do we have an oversight problem? I believe so. In quick order of magnitude, the SFPUC must finish the WSIP by 12/31/2015. The SFPUC has completed approximately 20 to 22 percent of the work. The rest must be completed in about 1/3rd the legally allowed remaining time. The SFPUC has issued approximately $3B in bonds and has spent (WSIP) about $1B, with the difference in an account earning approximately 1.3%. The weighted average cost of the debt incurred by the SFPUC is of the order 4.5%. This is a negative arbitrage of -3.2%; a huge amount of money payable by the ratepayers.
Firms operate because they can produce at costs less than market costs. Owners hire anti-shirkers (managers) to protect their interest and ensure productive teamwork takes place. Managers have a lower propensity to perform if they become members of their own team. Oversight committees have the same role. Ratepayers are the masters and this must not be forgotten. On the other side of the coin, unions which are cooped by management are derisively called "company unions" and have been outlawed. The RBOC cannot become a "company" committee.
Brian Browne is co-author of 2002's Proposition P and Board of Supervisor
appointed No. 1 Chair on RBOC
Foxes and Henhouses at SF’s PUC
In 2002 the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) estimated its Hetch Hetchy fix-up at $3.6B. Today it is estimated at $4.6B. A revision to $5B by 2015 is likely. The ratepayers will pick up the check in significant rate spikes.
Proposition E of 2002 gave the SFPUC a virtual blank check. Its main target was the voter’s historical right to veto revenue bonds. It also allows a transfer of funds from the SFPUC to the general fund.
Utilities use a revenue requirements approach to ratemaking: rates, multiplied by units sold, (theoretically) equal allowable utility operating and capital costs. Revenues may not be set in excess of legitimate costs to produce funds for non-utility use.
Excess rate-revenues must be reinvested into the system or returned to the ratepayers as a rebate under California’s Prop 218 and the affirmative Big Horn decision
The Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) resulted from the passage in 2002 of Proposition P. It was proposed as an independent counter-balance to Props A and E that gave the SFPUC, without voter approval—and real oversight—access to vast sums of public funds.
The RBOC was to be funded by setting aside 1/20th of 1 percent of all revenue bonds issued, These funds were to be set aside in a special account (RBOC NOT SFPUC) at the Controller’s Office.
The SFPUC decided to issue billions in Build America Bonds (BABs) created by the 2009 America Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). BABs’ interest payments are currently subsidized by the federal government (taxpayers) at 35 percent of all interest payments. BABs are not tax exempt to most US citizens.
Prior to using BABs the SFPUC issued tax-exempt municipal bonds and included the RBOC funding fee in the issuance costs. The SFPUC in issuing BABs decided that this fee was contrary to the 2009 Act and/or IRS codes.
There are no such prohibitions either in law (ARRA) or codes (IRS).
The net result of this was that there was no longer an automatic set-aside automatically deposited in a special RBOC account at the Controller’s Office. A special account, compliant with 2002 P, has not been set up at the Controller’s Office to take such automatic deductions after eight years since the passage of P.
For the period 2006 to end of year 2010, SFPUC will have issued $2,997,930,000 in revenue bonds. A lot of this money came as a result of recent BABs bond sales. RBOC’s accrued funding ($0.50/$1000) for this amount is $1,498,965 (less the $223,310, paid to the same consultant for three contracts), gives the RBOC a net draw by December 31 of $1,275,655.
It might be appropriate to review the applicable voter mandated text of Prop P:
San Francisco Administrative Code Chapter 5
§5.31(d) … “from and after the effective date of this Ordinance one-twentieth of one percent of the gross proceeds from each issuance or sale of public utility revenue bonds shall be deposited in a fund established by the Controller’s Office and appropriated by the Board at the direction of the Committee to cover the costs of said Committee.”
Yet now the SFPUC claims that over half of the mandated money, is optional. The RBOC must request its funding—putting the oversight committee in a very dependent relationship—and does not automatically accrue to the not yet created special and independent RBOC account.
Incredibly, the RBOC agreed to this dependent relationship, by a vote of 6 to 1, accepting this unprecedented decision to request the SFPUC grant them their money at a future budget time. This is a bad precedent.
Without a murmur the will of the people has been overturned.
If BABs forbade the SFPUC (which it does not) from including the RBOC fee, the SFPUC, on reaching such a financing fork in the road, should have issued very attractive tax-exempt municipal bonds and complied with the mandates of 2002 Proposition P:
§ 5.35. Application.
“(a) All public utilities revenue bond authorizations approved either concurrent with or after the effective date of this Ordinance shall be subject to the provisions set forth herein.
(b) All bond authorizations introduced at the Board after the effective date of this
Ordinance shall contain a statement incorporating the provisions of this Ordinance
in such bond resolution.”
The 1/20th of 1 percent accrued to the RBOC belongs to the RBOC. It is difficult to comprehend how the SFPUC in its official bond statements can claim that after 36 months unspent RBOC funds must be returned to the SFPUC.
The SFPUC, in a rebuttal to my previous guest editorial (Sept ‘10), praises both the SFPUC and the RBOC. The RBOC has not lived up to the expectations of the authors of 2002 Prop P.
The last independent contract of the RBOC was signed by the General Manager
in April 2009. Only after a painstaking plea to the City Attorney
was this contract reviewed and approved by a vote of the full
Committee of the RBOC in September 2009. Had this vote not
taken place that contract would not be a legally binding RBOC
Tragically, it must be concluded, based on actual results, that the RBOC oversight has been short-circuited by classic San Francisco bureaucratic, role-reversal, fox guarding the hen house maneuvers. Shame on everyone concerned.
Brian coauthor of 2002 P and Board’s No. 1 Chair on RBOC
SF PUC Takes Exception to Charges of Malfeasance
Building for the Future – Transparency and Ratepayer Savings
The last Westside Observer issue contained an inaccurate depiction of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (SFPUC) well-regulated, transparent financial bond-issuance process. The article lacked mention of the hundreds of millions of dollars of savings that the SFPUC has locked in place for the benefit of ratepayers. It also lacked explanation of the numerous independent reviews and audits undertaken each year that are required by the San Francisco Charter, state municipal code and the voters. So let’s take this opportunity to explain the substantial and multi-pronged oversight processes governing the SFPUC.
Firstly, some facts on project costs. The total cost for the Water System Improvement Program is $4.6 billion, not $5 billion. Next, the article incorrectly states that the City will be issuing up to $5 billion for bonds to implement its community choice aggregation program. That is false; at present, the City has no plans to issue any debt for the community choice aggregation program.
The article postulates that the long-term borrowing rate would be 5.5% over 25 years for the SFPUC’s debt. This statistic is inflated in today’s environment; with rates at historical lows, the SFPUC’s highly-rated water and sewer departments have garnered actual rates of between 2.5% to 4.8% for bonds issued over the past year. In fact, along with the refunding of older bonds to lower interest rates, the SFPUC has already locked in place for its ratepayers over $400 million in savings over the next 30 years. Additionally, the article references Proposition E – 2002, which actually made it much more difficult for the Board of Supervisors to transfer surplus revenue to the General Fund, not easier, which is what the article erroneously implies.
Issuing Bonds and Debt – Saving Money for our Ratepayers
In the public sector, governments issue bonds to pay for long-term capital improvements that will benefit customers for years to come. A portion of the repair and replacement of existing infrastructure is funded through current year rates (pay-as-you-go), but without the disciplined and prudent use of revenue bonds, rates would need to dramatically increase in a given year to pay upfront for massive infrastructure projects. For example, the WSIP Program is $4.6 billion, but our current water ratepayer revenues are just slightly greater than $300 million per year, hence the need for government issued revenue bonds.
In 2002, voters approved Propositions A and E, which granted the SFPUC the limited authority to issue short-term debt (like commercial paper or notes) and long-term debt (like bonds) for capital improvements. Commercial paper is short-term borrowing of less than 270 days and is typically used to finance project design and early construction. Utilizing commercial paper, which is issued at lower interest rates than long-term debt, saves ratepayers money. Since the inception of the SFPUC’s Water Commercial Paper Program, the SFPUC has saved ratepayers over $24 million. Additionally, the SFPUC has no plans to double the size of its Commercial Paper Program, as was erroneously reported in last month’s article.
Oversight of Bond Spending
As mandated by San Francisco’s Charter and Administrative Code, a complete and fully transparent process governs every aspect of the SFPUC’s bond issuance process. It begins with independent monitoring by the seven-member Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC). The RBOC meets monthly to review pending bond issuance, examine recent bond transactions and discuss financing. Aimee Brown, the Chair of RBOC and a seasoned expert in municipal finance, along with the members of the RBOC, regularly question all aspects of the SFPUC’s borrowing program. The RBOC conducts oversight of SFPUC project spending through detailed audits that are funded by a 1/20th of 1% fee on all bond issuances; in fact, the RBOC recently concluded an independent audit of a WSIP reservoir project, which found that the SFPUC complied with prudent financial management. The RBOC has reviewed the SFPUC’s Commercial Paper program and found solid performance.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission also provides overarching regulatory oversight and approves all debt issuances. The Board of Supervisors then has the final say and must authorize the SFPUC’s debt programs. Finally, projects and all financial transactions are subject to audits by the Controller, the City Services Auditor, independent financial auditors (currently KPMG) and RBOC auditors.
The SFPUC’s transparency and financial reporting is recognized nationally. Recent awards include the Distinguished Budget Presentation Award (Fiscal year 2009-10); and the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting (FY 2008-09).
San Francisco is fortunate to own, operate and maintain one of the best water, power and sewer systems in the country. The SFPUC is an enterprise department; our annual budget of $762 million is funded almost entirely through ratepayer customer charges like water rates, sewer rates and power rates. As a consequence, San Francisco taxpayers pay no taxes (ZERO DOLLARS) for SFPUC operations. Together, we will continue building for the future - strengthening our water, power and sewer systems.
Todd Rydstrom – Todd serves as the Assistant General Manager of
Business Services and the Chief Financial Officer of the San Francisco
Public Utilities Commission.
Noted in the above article, Aimee Brown is the current Chair of the RBOC. She is a municipal finance professional with over 30 years of experience, including positions as VP at Goldman Sachs, Principal at Artemis Capital Group and Managing Director at RBC Dain Rauscher. Aimee has played a lead role in some of the most complex infrastructure financing programs in the nation.
The Regulatory Morass of the SFPUC Financing System
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) is going deeper and deeper into debt, and voters no longer have the right to approve of how SFPUC incurs this revenue based debt. Ratepayers still have to pay for this debt through their utility bills. The structure of this debt has become considerably complex, and it appears that the SFPUC has become a financial intermediary, wheeling and dealing in complex debt instruments.
In the absence of voter oversight there does not appear to be any real regulatory constraints and oversight. This is exacerbated by the legal and financial complexities surrounding these programs in the overall context of a fragmented and unsystematic regulatory process. The unraveling of the thread between authorization of a project and the application of commercial paper is daunting.
The business model charges the SFPUC with planning and implementing possibly $10 to $15 billion in capital improvements and operating one of the largest multi-utilities in the US so this must be scrutinized. However, time and space are not available in this essay. Actual progress to date on water system improvements v promised deliverables weighs against a positive evaluation at this point.
The SFPUC (Commission) the politically appointed board of directors (commissioners) for San Francisco’s municipal water, sewer, and power systems, has potential plans to issue between $5 billion and $15 billion in revenue debt instruments. Rounding out/up:
• $5 Billion for the Hetch Hetchy system fix-up,
• $5 Billion for implementing community choice aggregation (AB117), and
• $5 Billion for a city-wide sewer fix-up.
Total and annual repayment schedules for projected capital improvements are summarized below. Annual payments were estimated at a long-term coupon rate of 5.5% over a 25 year term.
Prior to the passage of Proposition E in November 2002, voter approval was required for the SFPUC to issue revenue debt (bonds) tied to future rate increases. This system was straightforward and a relatively transparent process. The SFPUC would put forward a capital improvement plan to the voters. The back and forth during the run-up to the election would generate considerable information about the value of the proposal and the voters would pass or reject the plan. San Francisco has a long-history of voting for capital programs.
In the 1997, the measure to sell $304 million A&B bonds for seismic and water quality, the accepted financing approach to disbursement of project funding was incremental issuance of revenue bonds.
In 1998 Ordinance 203-98 permitted the Board to “issue or incur short-term indebtedness in anticipation of the issuance of revenue bonds which have been authorized in accordance with the Charter.” The phrase “in anticipation” is pivotal. Commercial paper (CP)programs were based on the already authorized issuance of revenue bond.
The SFPUC initially established a $250 million commercial paper draw to implement 1997 A&B work. This CP draw was repaid by selling authorized 1997 A&B revenue bonds. Members of the Mayor’s SF Infrastructure Taskforce (2000-2002) were concerned about the implementation of this CP program for the following reasons:
1) This step made the SFPUC a financial intermediary, for which it did not appear qualified, and
2) CP is significantly more difficult to monitor. Lots of time, varied churning and multiple rates are involved.
In November, 2002 Proposition E, a Charter Amendment, passed. It transferred from the voters to the Board of Supervisors the sole right to issue future revenue bonds. Proposition E specifically mentioned short term debt, commercial paper, and used the umbrella expression “revenue debt” to ensure the SFPUC was not constrained by debt instrument type.
Good public policy in general requires a KIS (keep it simple) approach. This requires a systematic, transparent and easy to understand system. The system for issuing short-term and long-term debt after the passage of 2002 Prop. E is significantly more complex. As one sage mother once said it is “as clear as mud.” SFPUC went from a relative KIS system to a regulatory morass while burdening its customers with an avalanche of debt.
To fill this uncertain regulatory gap between commercial paper and authorized long-term revenue bond debt, the Board passed Ordinance 266-06. This ordinance attempted to tie together the 1998 Ordinance 203-98 and 2002 Proposition E. It did not simplify the process. The main reason for 266-06 was to initialize a $150,000,000 commercial paper for SFPUC’s new sewer program. This ordinance did acknowledge the requirement that commercial paper (and derivatives thereto) programs could be used only after the Board had approved and identified the issuance of a dedicated revenue bonds program.
Proposition E also spoke to giving the SFPUC the right to enter into joint power sharing agreements, set rates, speak to rate fairness and interestingly allowed a conduit for Hetch Hetchy enterprise “surplus” revenues to be transferred to the general fund.
Surplus revenues belong to the ratepayers in the form of a rebate and/or must be plowed back into the system to reduce future charges since surpluses come from rates. Any transfer to the general fund would be contrary to 1996 California Proposition 218 (a revival of the old idea of no taxation without representation), a constitutional amendment, especially in light of the 2006 Big Horn Case1.
All revenue bonds must be repaid through rate increases. A genuine concern is that a rate increase of one percent will see a decrease in actual demand of greater than one percent, i.e., total revenues will fall, and less rather than more will be available for debt service after a rate increase.
Bottom line — there is no real regulatory oversight in SF. It has gone from a relatively simple and transparent system, with ratepayers and citizens involved, to a regulatory morass that is unmanageable. The SFPUC has authority to issue $650 million in commercial paper. They have indicated they wish to double this amount to $1.3 billion. Trying to keep track of actual authorizations and complementary commercial paper will be impossible. One disadvantage San Francisco has under state law is that it is a self-regulating municipality.
The current system does not work. A good start would be to rescind Proposition E.
Brian Browne is a member of the Public Utilities Revenue Bond Oversight Committee, a specialist in economic and regulatory analysis of water, wastewater, natural gas, power, and transportation sectors. Author of numerous studies on these subjects.
City's PUC Falling Behind on Water Fix-up?
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) creeps along with the Hetch Hetchy (HH) system fix-up. HH is a complex gravity system including dams, hydro-power plants, siphons, pumps, tunnels and pipelines that stretches from the High Sierras to the Bay. It provides water for approximately 2.4 million local and regional water customers with undoubtedly some of the most pristine water available in the USA. HH is also probably the only federally mandated municipal power provider in the US.
The 1913 Raker Act granted San Francisco the right to build dams and extract
water from the Tuolumne River and provide water and power to municipalities
and municipal customers. The system receives approximately 80 to 85 percent
of its water from the Tuolumne River. Under Raker the SFPUC has junior
riparian water rights. The senior rights are vested in the Turlock and
Modesto irrigation districts. The SFPUC may only extract water after the
flows of the Tuolumne River meet certain criteria at different times of
the year. Approximately sixty percent of all Tuolumne River water goes
to the irrigation districts and SFPUC. The Hetch Hetchy system receives
the residual amount of its deliverable water from sources west of the Oakdale
intakes for the San Joaquin pipelines.
The system is over 7 decades old and for years it has been known that this marvel of engineering must be repaired and improved. Over the years, many plans were advanced but never became operational. In 2002 the SFPUC boldly announced that they had a 76 project local and regional fix-up plan, known as the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), and all that was needed was the funding authority and the SFPUC would implement and complete this plan by 2015.
Blank Check In 2002 San Francisco voters passed Proposition A granting the SFPUC the right to issue $1.6 billion in revenue bonds. This was trumped by 2002 Proposition E (Ammiano) that removed the voters’ the right to issue water and wastewater bonds and ceded it to the Board of Supervisors. SFPUC now had a blank check to implement their plan. The voters also passed Proposition P, which created the Revenue Bond Oversight Committee (RBOC) as a ratepayer advocate to monitor the expenditure of revenue bond funds.
Who Controls the Water? The 29 wholesale customers making up the Bay Area Water Users Association were clearly dubious. Their politicians passed three pieces of legislation AB2058 which morphed their entity into the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency with powers analogous to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. SFPUC was welcome to join and cede approximately 70 percent of its now 100 percent governance of the Hetch Hetchy system.
BAWUA successfully lobbied to pass AB1823 which called for 50 percent of the Hetch Hetchy fix-up work to be done by 2010 and 100 percent by 2015. SB 1870 collaborative efforts by local and regional folks created a regional financing authority to ensure the fix up would be funded in the event Props. A and E failed.
In 2002 both Props A and E passed and the SFPUC was given the green light to implement its multibillion dollar CIP.
In 2005 a new plan, Water Supply Improvement Project (WSIP) was unveiled under a new manager. It proposed major changes to the CIP including a system wide project environmental impact review (PEIR) and established a new concept called level of service. The large and expensive PEIR basically caused a major re-work of the original plan (CIP) and cost large amounts of time and resources. The levels of service are stated goals as to how quickly and at what levels the system may be restored after a major system break. It is unclear what, if any, mathematical model derived these so called ‘levels of service.”
Score card. The local percent complete is shown as 48.1% complete. The larger regional fix up is 13.3% and the total bill has reached approximately $4.5 billion. Why? It appears, based on extrapolation of current SFPUC costs and the blending in of the debt service for these billions in expenditures that conservatively rates will increase by a factor of 5 (6) before this system is finally completed.
In 2008 a “variant” to the WSIP was implemented under yet another new general manager. This plan extends the fix-up until 2018 and claims that the SFPUC will be able to deliver 265 million gallons of water per day (MGD) for regional and local customers from current pristine sources i.e. Tuolumne river and local reservoirs.
265. This 265MGD number is important. The current “variant” plan calls for the peninsula customers to receive 184 MGD and for SF to receive 81 MGD a total of 265 MGD. The city is currently negotiating a new Master Water Sales Agreement (MWSA), 1984-2009, and if this amount is enshrined in contract then the city customers could face water shortages, labeled by the SFPUC as “conservation.”
Historically, using SFPUC data, since 1984 (when the MWSA was signed), on average the Hetch Hetchy system has delivered 251 MGD with BAWSCA (nee BAWUA) receiving on average 163 MGD and SF 89 MGD. Using a longer historical period shows the annual average deliveries from the SFPUC decreasing more.
Over forecasting has some major negative impacts. State law demands that forecasts must be reliable and in the absence of available water residential and commercial projects may be stopped. The over forecasting phenomenon leads to underestimating the cost per unit of water. Over forecasting leads to over expectations in writing contracts such as was done in 1984 and appears to being replicated in 2009.
Competition. Yes, SFPUC is a municipal supplier of public power to both public and private customers if it so elects. It actually has private customers at the Ferry Building and SFO. It could win market share by providing a better widget, rather than socializing an existing private company, that is well scrutinized by the California Public Utilities Commission. The 1940 Supreme Court in affirming SFPUC as a municipal power provider stipulated that Hetch Hetch power could not be sold to PG&E for resale, but exhorted the SFPUC to compete against PG&E for both public and private customers
Looking Forward. San Francisco can look forward to the strong possibility of ceding governance of the Hetch Hetchy system, rate spikes of a magnitude that are not being discussed, intergenerational transfers of great debt to future San Franciscans, and the real possibility the system won’t really get fixed and all these well advertised calamities will befall an unprepared service area.
The Mayor, Board of Supervisors, Commission, and RBOC must exert real oversight and not externalize their implosive political aspirations onto our water and municipal power system. These folks need to confront the real issue: Can the current business model at the SFPUC actually plan and implement such a vast infrastructure project?