Editor's Log: Blame And Responsibility

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | April 2010 Vol. 65 No. 4

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.