Editor’s Log: Blame And Responsibility

Politics is a tough business. Just ask the U.S. Conference of Mayors. After years of largely underfunding and ignoring the festering problem under their streets, this group authorized a “special report” stating the obvious: they’ve got serious problems with their sewer/water systems, including the underground piping infrastructure.

Predictably, the report implies the federal government is largely to blame for the funding plight of cities.

Is this the same cry we can expect from countless groups, agencies and organizations across the country when they finally wake up to face the music? When they finally realize previous local governments largely failed to develop a vision for their communities based upon reality and self-sufficiency? Especially from municipal governments that often aren’t willing to take the drastic – and sometimes unpopular – steps necessary to execute their fiduciary responsibilities to the citizens they represent?

The report blames the federal government for the sad state of underground affairs based upon two criteria: the federally-based State Revolving Loan Fund (SRLF) as being wholly inadequate to fund local municipality needs, and unfunded mandates.

In the attack upon the SRLF, the report says that in 2008, cities had to shoulder 95 percent of public water and wastewater infrastructure investment, compared to only $2 billion being made available to states through the SRLF. Additional, they bemoan the fact that the SRLF program is just what it claims to be: a loan program that even “has to be paid back with interest.”

As the basis for their desperate state of need, the mayors’ report predicts that sewer/water rates will double to quadruple over the next 20 years. Further, it forecasts that spending for public water and wastewater systems will range between $2.5 and $4.8 trillion over the next 20 years compared to $1.6 trillion being spent from 1956 – 2008. The report does explain that an adjusted-for-inflation figure of $3.2 trillion more accurately reflects that amount spent since 1953 in today’s dollars. But the report fails to point out that in 1953, the U.S. population was about 160 million compared to 315 million in 2010. You can’t arbitrarily ignore the fact that population increases translate into increased usage, wear and tear and necessary system expansions – especially over 50 years. Most cities I’m aware of actively court and seek economic expansion and subsequent population increases as the road to positive community growth and a high standard of living.

Another ignored fact: Federal programs were never designed to be the primary funding source for municipal sewer/water departments. In fact, federal programs, including the SRLF, have been artificially extended since the 90s. But because these programs are politically popular, they keep getting funded to some degree to keep a trickle of funds flowing back home – that makes congressmen and senators look like they care and allows local city governments to once again delay or defer needed user fee increases.

Unfunded mandates, both at federal and state levels, are everywhere and in all fairness, continue to plague every aspect of our lives, often with negative, unintended effects. But until the U.S. Conference of Mayors is able to lobby a change to those mandates, they’ll just have to live with them.

And that means adjusting user fee structures on an as-needed basis. No more three, five or even 15 year waits between rate increases. No one wants high sewer/water rates; yet most people don’t notice small increases on a regular basis to keep up with inflation and true operational costs. It’s those massive rate hikes every five or 10 years when an emergency strikes (such as EPA intervention) that almost causes community revolts.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh in my criticism. There are certainly shining examples of proactive cities that have worked very hard to meet their issues head-on and effectively. But it’s hard to be sympathetic when so many local city councils brag to their constituents about “holding the line” on sewer/water rate increases while at the same time effectively sabotaging their future.

Granted, most of these mayors have inherited a dismal situation through historically short-sighted city governments. No doubt it would be optimum if Congress could unite and agree to kill billions in pork projects and reinvest in America’s infrastructure. But what are the odds of that happening? Besides, Congress is having its own, well-documented funding crisis.

Mayors and city council members, roll up your sleeves and go to work. You can’t – and shouldn’t – count on the federal government as your savior, especially for problems you created. And this time, use a little vision.

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