Editor’s Log: No Cavalry In Sight

It was a desperate cry for help, presented in powerful and disturbing comments from municipal respondents to the recently completed 16th Annual Sewer & Water Infrastructure Survey conducted by Underground Construction.

Their message is quite simple: we can’t take care of America’s health without proper funding options. Sewer/water/storm water officials from around the country are virtually pleading for a chance to execute their fiduciary responsibilities and serve the public trust by maintaining and enhancing their infrastructure systems. Yet, they feel stymied at every turn – and that was before the recession.

Unfortunately, it’s a cry in the wilderness. When economic times are good, infrastructure is ignored. When the economy is bad, infrastructure needs are abandoned.

Conversely, the survey revealed one positive trend regarding funding. Many cities are finally recognizing that their sewer/water user fees are not competitive with current program costs or worse, wholly inadequate. The survey indicated that municipalities are raising rates faster than at any time in recent history to correct that imbalance.

While city councils would prefer to be perceived as the “good stewards” who hold the bottom line, empathetic with the plight of their struggling constituency during this extended recession, most are realizing that policy is unsustainable. The reality is that to simply keep systems and services operating at a reasonable level (indeed, a safe level), sometimes user fees have to be raised (or at least approach) the cost of doing business. That said, cities shouldn’t increase user fees beyond actual business costs as that puts a difficult onus on the backs of citizens and builds resentment. Finding the right balance for municipalities will be critical going forward – even when budget crisis’ ease.

Another reality is that as overused, abused and outdated systems fail, the Federal money train of grants and low interest loans has all but disappeared. The national government has its own well-documented problems with finding enough money to keep the lights on in Washington. Until the budget is balanced, entitlement issues resolved, pork eliminated, serious debt retirement achieved and real economic growth resumed, increased Federal aid is a remote possibility at best. Most state governments are in similar situations – there simply isn’t enough money to boost infrastructure spending and still meet all the demands of other programs.

Under the Obama Administration, the EPA has ramped up its enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Consent decrees are being executed at double the previous rate of past presidential administrations. Those cities unlucky enough to be prosecuted have been forced to discover creative ways of financing and are reluctantly learning how to better manage their limited funds.

With the transition to the second Obama term, like many appointed officials, current EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has resigned to springboard into other opportunities. At press time, her successor was yet to be named. Most likely, not much will change in the way of policy believes our Washington D.C. Editor Stephen Barlas (on page XX, he outlines some of the key impacts expected from Congress in 2013). Cities will still be aggressively investigated and prosecuted for Clean Water Act violations, perhaps at even a higher rate. EPA fracking research will continue, but probably without conclusions until the economy is back on track. Overall, not much variation from the past four years is anticipated.

A mythical sewer/water infrastructure bank is still being bandied about as a possible solution. The concept has potential but the devil is in the details. Until our dysfunctional President and Congress can finally agree that the sun comes up in the east and sets in the west, I have my doubts that such a program could be implemented. There would be, I fear, all sorts of strings attached and politically-correct, nonsense limitations and regulations imposed. Regardless of the odds, some sort of program will probably be introduced in this session of Congress.

The Muni Survey, as always, was full of insightful comments and interesting facts. The good news was that, despite their struggles, more cities than not believe they will be able to increase spending a modest amount in 2013. Unfortunately, those same city officials understand that a little is not enough. They want to serve their cities, keep them safe with healthy, efficient water, sewer and storm water systems.

However, to accomplish even status quo, massive infrastructure projects are needed. For now, it’s a horrific problem with no political or practical cavalry in sight to save the day.

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