The Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners voted to approve a proposed consolidation of the city’s water and sewer utility with the gas utility at its March 29 meeting. The water and sewer utilities are currently under the purview of the Long Beach Water Department and the gas utility is run by Long Beach Gas and Oil. Three public meetings are required before the city council votes to place the measure on the November 2018 ballot. The commission estimated that the first meeting may take place in May or June.
Chris Garner, left, is the general manager of the Long Beach Water Department and Bob Dowell is the director of the Long Beach Gas and Oil Department. The Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners voted at its March 29 meeting to approve a proposed consolidation of the city’s water and sewer utility with the gas utility. The proposal requires three public meetings and a council vote before it appears on the November 2018 ballot. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Pat Flynn)
According to the water department, Long Beach is the only California city with two separately managed municipal utilities. The city council approves the rates for the gas utility and its director is hired by, and reports to, the city manager. The five-member board of water commissioners sets the rates for the water utility, and General Manager Chris Garner reports directly to the board.
If the measure passes in November, the water department would manage the water, sewer and gas utilities, under the purview of the water commission, renamed as the Long Beach Utilities Commission. According to Garner, the city manager would decide if the Long Beach Gas and Oil Department would remain a separate entity, or be absorbed into another city department.
“In a sense, the timing is right because the water and sewer utilities are operating well,” Garner said at the meeting. “It’s not being done out of the sense that we need to fix something. If we combine the three utilities, you have the luxury of two well-operating departments.”
According to the water department, the gas and water utilities have the same customers and require similar operations, many of which are separately managed. The pipelines are located in the same streets, but each utility conducts its own street repairs, resulting in uncoordinated operations. The utilities also run different meters. Garner said a consolidation would improve efficiency, which could result in lower costs to maintain the utilities, which in turn lowers rates for residents.
“One of the problems I’ve seen over the past three decades . . . the water and sewer rates done in this building are [in] a complete vacuum [from] what happens in the gas department,” Garner, who once ran the gas and oil department, said. “I think it would be very beneficial to the residents of Long Beach if all the rates were done by one board.”
If the consolidation takes place, the new Long Beach Utilities Commission will consider rate adjustments in an integrated manner, according to the city. The city manager and water commission will work together to appoint a new general manager of the department with the new utilities.
Regardless of whether or not the measure passes, the city is also changing the name of the Gas and Oil Department to the Energy Resources Department to reflect current attitudes regarding environmentalism and abating climate change.
Long Beach Gas and Oil Department Director Robert Dowell expressed his support of the consolidation and assured that it would not result in a loss of employees.
“Both departments have very strong and experienced employees,” he said. “Combining them [the utilities], we can get the best of both departments. . . . I think it’s the right time to do it. It’s just a little concerning for the employees right now because it’s new. Change is contentious. . . . [O]n behalf of the Long Beach Gas and Oil Department, we’re supportive of this.”
The water commission’s vice president, Gloria Cordero, commented that the consolidation could create new positions and give employees a chance to advance within the department.
“The gas department doesn’t necessarily have a marketing or communications department, so if there’s an opportunity for us to continue what we do and bring the gas department along, that’s an excellent opportunity,” she said.