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Catch a Wave: Could the city charter plus big waves make a locally owned and operated Municipal Utility District viable?


MUD Slide

Petitions asking the Santa Cruz City Public Works Commission to create a local, city-run Municipal Utility District have been popping up all over town. So far Nüz has spotted petitions in the Courtyard Commons, the Catalyst, the Vets Hall, New Leaf Markets and Ecology Action. In other parts of the state, MUDs have managed to skirt the soaring energy costs levied on prisoners of PG&E and Southern California Gas and Electric. Of course, there needs to be a legal framework and a source of energy to make the idea work.

Courtyard Commons owner Ron Lau believes a Santa Cruz MUD will happen "because of discoveries about our city charter and because of wave-powered turbines, which could provide Santa Cruz with the equivalent of San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system."

Until recently, activists believed that getting a local MUD involved a one-two punch: first, get the progressive-leaning City Council to vote it in; then, get a two-thirds majority on a citywide ballot--a less certain and more time-consuming proposition.

That was before the city's principal administrative assistant, Mary Arman, returned from an American Public Power Association-sponsored workshop riding the crest of a political tsunami. Charter cities such as Santa Cruz, Arman reported, have the right to set up a MUD without a citywide ballot.

City Attorney John Barisone agrees. "Santa Cruz's charter gives us optimum autonomy as regards legislative laws concerning municipal affairs," Barisone says, adding that "we're allowed to enact laws that govern our city so long as they're not at variance with statutes that are intended to occupy the field throughout the state."

And therein lies the rub. This winter, California passed legislation authorizing the state to purchase power while unauthorizing any new direct access contracts. Says Arman, "If we established a MUD right now, we'd be able to make decisions about conservation measures, receive public-goods charges, and make political and policy statements. But we wouldn't be able to set up our own power contracts, at least not for now."

Which brings us back to waves. According to energy contractor Len Beyea, wave turbines produced by Scotland's Wavegen are safe, competitively priced energy sources. "Water forces air to move up and down a column, so that animals aren't chewed up by any blades," says Beyea. "But at $1,600 for peak kilowatt, wave power is comparable in cost to the fossil-fueled plants Duke Energy and Calpine want to build at Moss Landing and San Jose, respectively."

Arman says it's still a question of ownership and use, until the state reopens direct access. "The city could buy into a wave power generator, but right now the generator would have to sell its power back to the grid, unless that power was used to run city facilities. "

Says Beyea, "The city could add wave power in increments to ensure it works and that its environmental consequences are acceptable and preferable to the alternatives."

Ecology Action at 125 Water St. (426.5925) is the pickup point for petitions, which will be presented to the City Council at a Public Works meeting May 21 at 7pm at the City Council chambers.

Go Home, Depot

On April 27, after months of asking nicely, a group of concerned citizens calling itself No Home for Depot was finally given a "walk through" of Home Depot's proposed site at 41st Avenue and Soquel Drive. Leaving cameras, tape recorders and reporters behind, NHFD signed releases protecting Home Depot from lawsuits in case of injury, but according to community organizer and NHFD member Jennifer Bragar, there wasn't much "walking through" involved.

"They told us we wouldn't have access to the entire site because of legal rights," Bragar says, "so we only had the opportunity to look at the site from Greenbrae Lane." The tour didn't include the riparian corridor along Soquel Creek, one of NHFD's key concerns.

In addition to fears that larger companies lure customers away from local stores with low prices, then raise them once the competition is obliterated, NHFD is also worried about low wages, noise, traffic, toxic materials, zoning laws and visual impacts.

"It was good to have an opportunity to be out there," Bragar says. "At the same time, we felt that there was a lot of posturing going on. They brought consultants [a biologist and an arborist] who had been hired two weeks ago and weren't familiar with the project."

According to Home Depot spokesperson Mike Wallace, not everybody loathes the do-it-yourself megastore. Though he won't give a figure, he says that a "significant number" of people have returned mailers Home Depot distributed to rally support for the project.

NHFD next meets May 22, 7:30pm, at the Soquel Grange. EIR public-scoping meetings to be announced.

Child-Care Update

As dismally paid child-care providers find it increasingly difficult to stay here, Santa Cruz residents can add another crisis to their list: child care.

Instead of recognizing child-care workers' move to join SEIU local 415 (see Nüz 4/25/01), Food and Nutrition Services opted to take the issue before the National Labor Relations Board. At their board meeting on May 1, FNS' board decided to hire a labor attorney instead of responding to calls to do a card-check recognition.

"It's very disturbing when this happens to workers," says union organizer Nora Hochman. "It's the ultimate sign of disrespect. It sets up a negative adversarial relationship to begin collective bargaining. But it's even more despicable when male executives do this to an almost exclusively female work force."

At $9 an hour, workers at FNS' three child-care centers receive a higher starting wage than their colleagues at other local centers, but it still isn't enough to cover Santa Cruz rents.

According to Hochman, FNS spent $30,000 in consultant's fees last fall trying to figure out why staff turnover is so high and $50,000 this year on image marketing and a logo upgrade. "And now, they are going to give a labor lawyer $200 to $250 an hour," she says, adding that State Assembly Bill 1889 forbids organizations from using state funds for union busting.

FNS executive director Sam Storey didn't call Nüz back.

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From the May 9-16, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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