The Price Of Free Money

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | August 2009 Vol. 64 No. 8

My home city of Houston is a great example of often misguided perceptions of the importance of the underground infrastructure. In the late 90s, then-Mayor Lee Brown diverted money from a fund which technically was earmarked for storm sewer improvements, to improve parks in certain sections of the city. Did the parks need drastic upgrades and improvement? Certainly. Did the storm sewers have money to spare? Absolutely not.

The parks program left a city, already susceptible to flooding, short of additional storm sewer funding. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison dumped up to 40 inches of rain over Houston, resulting in severe flooding in downtown Houston. Redesign and rebuild efforts started in a financial hole as the stormwater fund was depleted – but Houston had some nice parks.

Parks are great. Over the years, my family and I have very much enjoyed public parks and recreation. But city councils and mayors raiding essential services to pay for city beautification and parks just because it appeals to a political support base is not the answer.

Most senior public works employees understand the dilemma but are relatively powerless to overturn bad public policy at the city council, mayoral or even state levels.

Still, an infrastructure trust could be a good idea, but only if monies are made available to those municipalities who have put forth sincere efforts to address their needs locally and user fees reflect actual operational costs. There would have to be funding protocols in place – that’s the only long-term solution for cities to meet their current and growth demands. Cities must step up first and rely on federal funding second. Those are the type of responsible local governments that we can gladly support through an extra four cents per water bottle.