Editor's Log: They Got Theirs; What About Ours?

August 2012, Vol. 67 No. 8

Critical times lie ahead.

The jury is still out on whether extenuating factors from around the world will impact the U.S. economy and send us into another recession by 2014. There are paths to take that could mitigate those circumstances, but the course will largely remain unresolved until after the November 2012 elections.

In the meantime, many U.S. cities struggle to do whatever they can to meet their infrastructure obligations – often driven by EPA Consent Decrees – but unfortunately for too many, those efforts are insignificant and fall behind a long list of other pressing priorities.

Stockton, CA, is the latest in a series of cities to declare bankruptcy, a victim of financial mismanagement and misguided vision dating back to the 90s (it all seemed to start with a decision to provide firefighters full healthcare in retirement and soon all other city departments demanded – and received – the same package). Scranton, PA, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Their mayor recently received a lot of attention for his plan to cut city employee salaries back to minimum wage as Scranton’s bank account is almost exhausted. Scranton has been operating under Pennsylvania state supervision for financially distressed municipalities since 1992.

While those cities, and hundreds more just like them, have the best of intentions, most do not deserve our sympathy. While there are a litany of excuses – many valid – the fact remains that cities more often than not have created their own problems by failing to fulfill fiduciary responsibilities regarding the economic health of their communities – and that includes infrastructure. As a Federal Justice Department lawyer once told me, once a formal, detailed brief is compiled and actually filed in court, 99 percent of cities will acquiesce immediately and seek negotiation with the EPA regarding their out-of-compliance systems. Cities aren’t surprised by the lawsuits – their personnel already know they are out of compliance. But out-of-sight infrastructure always loses the attention and funding battle to potholes and bumpy roads. Until the hammer of the EPA comes slamming down, that is.

The transportation industry got their federal funding recently with a $104.4 billion, 27-month highway and transit authorization bill. While the increase in funding was nominal (just enough to cover inflation), it was no surprise that this highly visible industry with a powerful voice and allies got their money. The sewer and water industry will see their tiny piece of the federal pie cut again – no surprise there either.