Editor's Log: City Courage

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | May 2010 Vol. 65 No. 5

The Houston City Council, bowing to the inevitable, recently voted to phase in sewer and water rate increases over three years by as much as 30 percent. That means an average single-family household will see their typical rate climb from $47 to $60 per month by 2013.

Typical local news coverage bemoaned that now Houston will have rates “at a higher level than many major U.S. municipalities.” What an idiotic non-statement. Houston will also still have rates lower than many U.S. municipalities. When considering all the countless, critical reasons a healthy and effective sewer/water system is imperative for municipalities, having rates among the cheapest in the nation is not something to be proud of when the result is an inadequate system that is dangerous to the health and prosperity of said municipality.

Also buried in newspaper, online and broadcast news (if even mentioned) was the fact that Houston has been subsidizing the water and sewer department for . . . well, nobody can remember just how many decades the city has been subsidizing the department. In 2010, the sewer/water funding shortfall is expected to exceed $100 million, all to be made up by taxpayer dollars.

Three council members voted against the plan. One of them apparently was trying to score empathy points with constituents when he said: “The amount of the increase in this environment is very unfortunate and unfair.” I agree – it is unfair. It’s also unfair – and borderline criminal -- that previous city councils/mayors were short-sighted to the point they failed to realize that multi-million dollar subsidies of the city’s sewer/water department was unsustainable. They were, in effect, punishing future Houstonians.

To the 11 city council members and mayor who did decide to meet the issue head-on and do something about it, thank you for your courage and foresight. Of course, the city is in the middle of battling a $140 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2011 that doesn’t include the water/sewer department. They have no choice but to face the tough choices being forced upon them.

In all fairness, Houston did have an escalator built into their user fees, but it was poorly conceived and rarely reflected actual costs increases. In the future, the city will tie in annual rate increases to the producer price index, which in theory more closely follows actual cost increases to the water and sewer system.