In a 5-3 vote Wednesday that — intriguingly — fell along gender lines, the Phoenix City Council approved an increase in water rates, starting next month.
“I thank the women to have the leadership and courage to do the right thing. 5-3,” Interim Mayor Thelda Williams said, calling the vote during a meeting Wednesday afternoon that was replete with finger-jabbing, people talking over each other, and (this one was justified) crying.
With the increase, Phoenix water customers will pay an average of about $2 more each month for water starting in February. In February 2020, they'll pay another $2.37 more for water each month.
Wednesday's vote overturned the council's previous rejection of the proposed increase, on December 12, that was also 5-3. During that meeting, Williams initially voted for the water rate increase, resulting in a 4-4 tie, then changed her vote so that she could bring the proposal back to council.
The game-changer the second time around was Councilwoman Laura Pastor, who tearfully explained her change of heart and invoked her father, Congressman Ed Pastor, who died at the end of November.
"One of the conversations I had with him is that leadership is difficult," Pastor said, her voice cracking as she she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "As I take this vote, I think of my father, because he was a man of infrastructure."
During the previous vote, Pastor said she'd been in a "very, very deep fog," without saying explicitly that it was a few weeks after her father's passing. "That time, I wasn't really in the space to be prepared and understand."
This week, Pastor said, she'd gotten clarity on the water-rate issue, and she understood it.
"So, I will be the one that will step up to the plate and hit the home run," she said. "I’m ready for you. Come get me. I’m a yes vote.”
Her words seemed to be a direct challenge to Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who made a rare appearance at the meeting rather than following his usual M.O. of phoning it in.
A few minutes before Pastor's comments, DiCiccio had challenged the idea that anything had changed since December's vote. He casually tossed out unfounded accusations about the proposal to raise water rates. “From my end, I think this has been unethically put together. I think there’s lots of things happening behind closed doors,” he said.
DiCiccio voted no, along with Vice Mayor Jim Waring and Councilman Michael Nowakowski, as they had in December. Councilwomen Debra Stark, Felicita Mendoza, and Vania Guevara voted yes, along with Williams and Pastor.
At times, debate over the proposed rate increase waxed philosophical, as council members and public commenters alike weighed in on how increasing water rates was actually much bigger than a simple rate hike. It was about the future of Arizona, about its economy and about future growth, about coming to terms with a looming shortage on the Colorado River, they said.
All of them, except DiCiccio and Nowakowski, said they supported the rate increase.
“I hope that the members of the council understand how serious this is,” Williams said, during one of her several prolonged mini-speeches Wednesday afternoon. “A lot of our economy is based on continued growth. The reason we continue to get new corporations here is because we’ve always been able to say, water is not a problem.”
Phoenix did have enough water, Williams added. The problem was simply that it didn't have the distribution systems to bring it where it's needed.
Two members of the public, who sat on a citizen water rate advisory committee that in August recommended approval of the increase, described the rate increase as the most important vote that the council members would ever take.
One of them, Wes Harris, rebuked the council.
“When we say, 'We need this,' listen to us,” he said. "Don’t swear in any more citizens if you don’t want to listen to what they have to say."
He added, “I hate water increases, as you well know….This one, I wouldn't recommend if I didn’t think it was necessary.”
Business and developer interests, like the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and the advocacy group Valley Partnership, sent their people too.
“This is an important step by this city to show that we are ready for this new reality,” said Cheryl Lombard, Valley Partnership's president. Lombard also sits on the steering committee tasked with creating Arizona's Drought Contingency Plan, which is supposed to spell out how Arizona will deal with a shortage on the Colorado River, something that could happen by the end of the year.
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The additional revenue from the increase would amount to $24.1 million of additional revenue in 2019 and another $25 million per year starting in 2020 — a total of $49.1 million per year once both rate increases have kicked in.
The funding would go toward $1.5 billion in infrastructure to transport water from southern and central Phoenix to the northern parts of the city, Kathryn Sorensen, water services director for the city of Phoenix, told the council.
Northern Phoenix relies on water from the Central Arizona Project canal, which transports water from the Colorado River. Cutbacks to that supply are expected as soon as 2020, which means Phoenix needs to build infrastructure to pump stored water and transport water from the central and southern parts of the city to the north. Phoenix takes most of its water from the Salt and Verde Rivers, and a small amount from underground aquifers.
"We want to be ready for what comes on the Colorado River, no matter what that is," Sorensen said.