View Original Notice ? Long Beach voters may consider utility merger in November
The Long Beach City Council on Tuesday, May 17, took the first steps in placing a measure for voters to consider on the November general election ballot — this time, pertaining to a potential merger of the city’s water and gas utility departments.
Long Beach is the only large city in California that has two separately managed utilities — and officials have been considering merging the two for years. Now, that process is underway.
The City Council’s consideration of the issue was prompted by a unanimous vote from the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners, who asked the council to consider starting the process of merging the two departments last week.
Because a merger would require a change to the city’s charter, a voter-approved ballot measure is required for the merger to go through. With the City Council’s unanimous approval of the request to consider the merger, the issue will now go to the city’s Charter Amendment Committee.
The Charter Amendment Committee — which is comprised of all city councilors and Mayor Robert Garcia — will organize two public hearings, one in mid-June and another in mid-July, to gauge public opinion towards a potential charter change and utility merger. Then, on August 9, the City Council will decide whether to place a measure on the November ballot.
Consolidation has long been considered for one main reason: The gas and water departments both serve the same customers. Residents and businesses in Signal Hill also receive gas from Long Beach.
“Many operations are duplicative,” said Water Department General Manager Chris Garner during the May 17 meeting. “The idea is we would combine the two under one roof and take advantage of those economies of scale.”
The Gas Department serves approximately 150,000 metered customers and the Water Department serves about 90,000 metered customers.
Utility bills for gas and water already are consolidated (along with sewer and refuse) and sent out of a single office. The gas agency has more customers because that is often metered individually in multi-unit complexes, with a single water meter for the entire building.
In April 2020, the Water Department hired Bell Burnett and Edwards to conduct a study on a potential consolidation.
“We believe that it is reasonable to assume that the coordination of water, sewer, and gas pipeline projects will result in efficiencies and cost reduction,” the study said, noting that the city could save $1 million on joint pipeline improvements, replacement and repairs for this fiscal year.
Garner said that no current employees of either department would be fired should a merger be approved by the voters. Rather, he said, positions would be reduced over time through natural vacancies and attrition.
If approved, the five-member water commission will likely get a new name — though that hasn’t been decided yet, Garner said.
“We should think about how we can completely reimagine the role of this new department,” Vice Mayor Rex Richardson said. “I’m looking forward to further discussion at the Charter Amendment Committee.”