Editor's Log: No Cavalry In Sight

February 2013, Vol. 68 No. 2

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Another reality is that as overused, abused and outdated systems fail, the Federal money train of grants and low interest loans has all but disappeared.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.