News of the Arroyo
Pasadena embezzlement doesnít mean undergrounding power is wrong
|August 26, 2015 - The Star-News urges local residents to not forget about the importance of undergrounding utility lines in the face of the recent mismanagement and embezzlement in the Pasadena program.
|Danny Ray Wooten, a former management analyst in Pasadena's Department of Public Works, accused of embezzling $6.4 million from City Hall.|
In the embezzlement scandal that has rocked Pasadena City Hall since December, a little-remarked fact is how easy the plundered utilities fund was to steal from because the city wasnít spending it down.
Each year, the average Pasadena Water & Power Department customer pays a surcharge of $30 into the Underground Utility Program, ostensibly to get rid of unsightly wiring and make the grid more reliable during windstorms and other foul weather.
But for years far more money has been going into the fund than out of it ó legitimately or not. Tens of millions of dollars were just sitting there unused, a target-rich environment, prosecutors say, for a thief on the inside. That is just what the city says former Department of Public Works employee Danny Ray Wooten was, and he now stands accused of ripping off ratepayers by paying himself, friends and a church where he was a pastor the ill-gotten gains from 296 Underground Utility invoices over 11 years filed and paid under false pretenses.
In all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing over the last eight months, it has been mostly ignored that city officials have admitted they donít have a strong handle on the best way to put power lines underground in the San Gabriel Valleyís largest city, even though they have been gouging citizens for years with the surcharge. Psychologically, that makes it easier to understand how the scam was able to go on for over a decade. City leaders were pleased when money was actually being spent, at least in theory on getting wires underground, from the ballooning fund. That goes somewhere toward explaining how on Earth they overlooked the fact that some checks were made out to New Covenant Christian Fellowship Church in Pomona, which would seem to be working on a higher power than mere electricity.
A consultantís report released this week does not get into the psychology of just how City Hall was played for a fool over more than a decade. But it does say that a key management problem that made the embezzlement easier was the confusion over whether the cityís Public Works Department or the Water & Power utility is in the end responsible for undergrounding electricity in the city. And it recommends that Water & Power be given full responsibility in the future for the work, if it ever gets done at all, that is.
Back in 2007, it was estimated that it would take 171 years to complete the 220 miles of utilities to be undergrounded in Pasadena. Thatís rather a long timeline. Perhaps itís no wonder that no one wants to take responsibility for the task.
But we want to emphasize that in the end the undergrounding is a worthwhile program. Though there are drawbacks to undergrounding ó locating outage sources can be tougher than with power poles, though technology is changing that ó the practice greatly reduces maintenance costs and improves reliability. That is precisely why, in Los Angeles, DWP unions killed undergrounding ó it would mean less work for their members.
And, yes, there are the aesthetic advantages. It is amazing how much better the view of the San Gabriel Mountains is when not seen through a tangle of power and telephone lines.
Pasadena has already introduced new accounting practices. Now it should spend the undergrounding money as it long ago promised to.