Sunday, March 10, 2013

Storm Water

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  -- George Santayana

So,  Colorado Springs Utilities should fund storm water capital and maintenance needs.  Really?

I am not sure where to begin on this one.  Does this mean that there should be a fifth utility, storm water, to go along with electric, gas, water and wastewater?  Or, maybe that storm water channels are so important to drainage crossings of water and wastewater lines that utilities should be responsible for the entire channel?  Or, perhaps simply that CSU should pay for storm water improvements, just because?

On the first suggestion of a fifth utility, well, we’ve been there, done that.  We had a fifth utility once not so long ago.  It was called street lights.  The public objected very strongly, and in 2003 the citizens elected a new City Council that promptly eliminated it.  It seems the citizens thought it was a general fund expense.  After that lesson, City Council tried storm water as an independent enterprise, this time operated by the general fund.  Again the voters rejected it, passing Doug Bruce’s Issue 300 in 2009 thus forcing the elimination of the storm water enterprise.  Surely, the current administration is not so ignorant of recent history that it does not know the likely citizen response to the idea of a fifth utility.

On the second option there is, obviously, a nexus between the condition of the drainage channel and the security of water and waste water crossings.  Everyone would accept utility’s taking steps to care for the channel within a reasonable distance of the crossing.  Much more than that and one is quickly in a quagmire.  How far upstream (or downstream) does the responsibility go: the city line? CSU service territory?  the Fountain Creek watershed?  the county line?  These are four different geographical areas with no logical connection between them and CSU’s primary services.  CSU has for some time contributed to storm water channel improvements within 100 yards +/- of a water or waste water line crossing.  The Utility Board even discussed increasing that distance, and walked away from it for the reasons discussed below.

Maybe CSU should pay for it, just because?  Except, unlike the Federal Reserve Board, CSU cannot simply print money.  CSU must raise it through the rate structure.  Adding tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars in expenses will require raising rates for either water, waste water or both.  Water rates are already sky high to pay for the Southern Delivery System, now under construction.  Waste water rates are also high, having been raised over the last 15 years to pay for system-wide improvements to replace and repair ancient, decaying mains thereby reducing waste water spills.  Adding the costs without raising the revenues to pay for it is even more dangerous, impacting many different bond rating metrics.  Further, bond rating agencies are always on the lookout for publicly-owned utilities pulling this type of shenanigan: foisting general fund expenses off on the utility rate payer.  The rate payer pays for the storm water improvements, either directly through rates consciously increased to pay the added expenses, indirectly through lower bond ratings and higher borrowing costs, or, most likely,  both.  It is, in fact, a back door tax increase without any public discussion of either the cause of the problem or where the costs should fall.

It is the nature of everyone newly elected in public office to blame one’s predecessor for current circumstances.  A close corollary to this precept is the argument that one’s predecessor overlooked the obvious solution to the problem.  Unfortunately, in public office, this is almost never the case.  The newcomer to office simply (willingly) does not remember the past.

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