Underground Construction’s 13th Annual Municipal Infrastructure Survey: Signs Of Life in Sewer/Water Economy

Stimulus Offers Small Aid; Slow Turnaround As Year Progresses
By Robert Carpenter, Editor | February 2010 Vol. 65 No. 2

The pressure for cities to maintain and expand underperforming or dilapidated systems continues to grow ever stronger from the EPA, state environmental agencies and even the public which has grown weary of leaky systems and health risks. However, trying to work out elusive funding options in a recession is extremely difficult, leaving user fees as the easiest and obvious target. Thus, in 2010, raising funds through increased user fees – even at the risk of a public backlash – is getting serious consideration for 58 percent of the cities responding to the survey. “In tough economic times, citizens do not want to hear that you need to raise rates to be able to continue your services,” observed a Southwest municipal manager. “Voting constituents also do not want to hear that you may be spending millions of dollars for arsenic programs and sewer rehabilitation.”

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Funding woes

That funding is the number one concern for cities is perhaps an understatement. Roughly 68.5 percent believe there will be a serious funding gap between what is budgeted and what is actually needed for infrastructure construction and rehabilitation. Frustration was apparent in many of the responses.

“Our biggest issue is funding for an ancient system that needs to be replaced,” stressed this municipal respondent from the Midwest. “Pipe replacement expenditures do not equal what actually needs to be replaced and/or rehabilitated,” observed a Mountain West official. “Years of system neglect will be tough to catch up.”

A muni official from the upper Midwest pointed out a unique twist to the funding issue, directly tied to the recession: “People with no jobs will still need to pay taxes and utility rates. The city is way behind in collections this year.”

Still another twist came from this Southwest respondent who was commenting about lack of funding: “Aging infrastructure is leading to SSOs.”

Ironically, several cities reported that they went too far in slashing budgets and cutting work. Often, all but emergency work ground to a halt in 2009. “We basically had an extreme, knee-jerk reaction to all the bad economic news we were hearing,” lamented one survey respondent from the Midwest. “There’s nothing wrong with being cautious and fiscally conservative, but we went overboard – really didn’t look at the facts and adjust our spending accordingly.”

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