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Fri, May

What the Heck is the DWP ‘Equity Metrics Initiative’? And, Why It’s Important that Know

EASTSIDER-I’ve always been amazed at bureaucracies’ ability to mask their programs for the poor, the disabled, people of color and other under-represented/underserved groups, with opaque titles. Here, what is truly at the heart of the Equity Metrics Initiative is inequality. 

Of course, the Mayor and the City Council have their own program for all this stuff -- it’s called Affordable Housing, and their version throws many of these same people out of rent-controlled housing. Then, as the unaffordable “market rate” replacement housing comes online, a number of the displaced can be dumped onto the streets where they often join the ranks of the homeless. Right on, good plan. 

So, I’m actually glad that the DWP, at least, recognizes that increasing costs for basic services like water and power have a disproportionate impact on some areas of our City which are not affluent – and maybe not all DWP customers are being treated equally. This certainly puts them one up on the City Council, who simply treats these groups as good candidates for bond issues, Trust Funds, and photo ops. 

What Does the Initiative Mean? 

Basically, you can’t track problems if you don’t have any data to discover what and where they are. As a result, buried in the 2016 rate increases was a commitment by the DWP to build a data-driven framework to track and assess how well programs, services and resources are being distributed and used throughout the city, both geographically and demographically, and to see whether any disparities exist. 

The real goal of all these measures is to try and move the meter, ensuring that all customers are reached with fairness and equity. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that certain areas of our City are not treated as nicely as others -- Watts/Willowbrook, Pico/Union, East LA, and parts of the Valley like Pacoima and Panorama City, for example. They simply don’t get the same squeaky wheel attention (and goodies) that Pacific Palisades, Bel Air, Brentwood, Porter Ranch, or the Hollywood Hills do. The proposition that more affluent, higher socio-economic folks get disproportionate political attention should come as no surprise to any of us. 

Anyhow, at the Rollout presentation on Thursday October 12, a packed room of DWP staff and Board members, community groups, and Neighborhood Council representatives met to go over the basics of this program that will soon be traveling throughout the City. 

There are four key areas. The biggie is Power and Water -- power system reliability, as measured through pole, transformer and cable replacement cycles, as well as frequency and duration of power outages. And water system reliability, based on probability of failure and planned replacement cycles, as well as the very important issue of water quality complaints. 

The second category centers around Customer Incentive Programs and Services. We all know that there are a ton of state and local programs out there, but we also know that the population that knows about any of them and know how to utilize their benefits, tends to be more educated, higher income residents. Honestly, the DWP’s list of these programs includes some that even I never heard of -- but should have: 

Consumer Rebate Program                    Commercial Direct Install Program

Low Income/Lifeline Programs               Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

Refrigerator Exchange Program              Home Energy Improvement Program

Turf Removal Rebates                            Tree Canopy Program

Rain Barrell/Cistern/Water Tank Rebates 

Since these are designed to help more at-risk customers (as well as meet the Mayor’s renewable energy goals), you have to wonder how many in the target audience actually know about them, much less take advantage of their benefits. That’s part of the reason for tracking metrics by zip code. Seems like a reasonable idea to me. 

The Third Category is Procurement, as in, vendors to the DWP. Right now, that’s limited to the Small Business Enterprise and Disadvantaged Veteran Business Enterprise Program Participation Programs. Another set of programs that I never heard of, and I look forward to seeing how much outreach has taken place in the past. 

Finally, the Fourth Category is Employment, and this one is important and can get very tricky very fast. Once you start going beyond the EEO stats, there needs to be a way to correlate job groupings against the potential labor pool of people who can meet the minimum qualifications, and I don’t think any of this is tracked at the zip code level. Also, there are minimum requirements set out in both the DWP / IBEW labor agreement for hiring and promotion, as well as City Civil Service regulations. Let’s see how it goes. 

So, there you have the major categories, as well as a basic overview of what will be covered by this Initiative. 

To date, a lot of progress has been made putting together a graphical dashboard, which allows for tracking progress over time. The details are available online in a document obtusely named “LADWP Rates and Equity Metrics [September 19, 2007]”. 

All of the documents I have referred to, and a good place to track this Initiative as it evolves, is online at the DWP website.   

Finally, to make sure this is not just another “feel good” program like our Mayor and City Council are so fond of, the DWP has partnered with Loyola Marymount and UCLA to help with the data and assure that this program stays on track. There’s even provision to let out consulting contracts to evaluate and modify it as necessary. 

The Takeaway 

Let me be clear, I’m not writing this article to act as a PR flack for the DWP. The issue is important, bad moniker or not. 

First, I know that a lot of my NC friends think that these kinds of programs are just “feel good” soft and fuzzy stuff that spends a bunch of money with no real cost/benefit gain for DWP customers as a whole. We’ll get into that. 

I’m also writing this article because personal family events made these issues assume a lot more importance to me over the last few years. Helping out an elderly mother-in-law whose husband predeceased her, who had to make ends meet on less than a $1000/month Social Security check, I got to see first-hand what a relatively modest rate hike can do to someone’s ability to survive financially.  

I also discovered that simply trying to obtain and use the support programs for the elderly and the disadvantaged that currently exist, can become too much for many people. You must remember that a majority of Angelenos did not get a college degree (or higher), do not have the networking advantages which that a degree and the jobs that flow from it provide, and do not live in circumstances in which baseline knowledge that we assume is readily available to them.                         

And I won’t even start on what happens when a person gets sick, or winds up with a permanent disability, or persistent mental health issues. Without a good support system, it can be hell. 

I’m all in for anything that will help level the playing field and more evenly distribute services and programs without regard to age, race, where you live, how educated you are, etc. 

I know that many of my NC friends are concerned about the cost of these initiatives. Personally, I like to make the following comparison. Theoretically, the Mayor and the 15 City Councilmembers are tasked with handling these geographical inequality issues. But so far, all that I have seen from them is a relentless drive to reinvent LA through development, which winds up throwing most of the folks we’re talking about to the wolves. “Affordable Housing” is a public relations buzzword they use as they gobble up the money from developers and displace more and more of our vulnerable Angelenos.  So, I’m glad the DWP, at least, has actually stepped up. 

As for dealing strictly with the numbers, I’m told there is about $60 million budgeted for this entire set of DWP programs. To my mind that’s about the cost of one Tom LaBonge-style City pet project foisted onto the DWP’s budget so they can slide it out from the City’s General Fund, and make all the DWP ratepayers foot the bill. Add up all these maneuvers for transfer-funding of Mayoral and Councilmember goodies to the DWP, and the budget for Equity Metrics is a rounding error.  

Finally, to my Neighborhood Council colleagues, the Equity Metrics Initiative is exactly the kind of program that the Neighborhood Councils were designed to address. Your role is critical for two reasons. First, you know your neighborhoods a heck of a lot better than the elected officials, and stakeholders are a lot more inclined to talk to you than they ever would to some City official. 

Second, while the DWP has scratched together enough funding to set up the metrics and databases to track these categories, they simply do not have the staff resources to do serious outreach to all the Angelenos who are ratepayers. The 95 or so Neighborhood Councils do. You can do this, and it can be a great way to accomplish something more meaningful than complying with the Brown Act, tracking votes on trivia to make DONE happy, trying to even find a DONE staff person -- and for sure, more fun than trying to get DONE to actually pay for anything. Right?

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.