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Monthly Archives: September 2014


 

The National League of Cities reports that nearly ¾ of municipalities are better off in2013 than they were in 2012.  In Broward County, over half the cities actually have more revenue in 2013 than they did in 2006.  Property values are up in 72% of Counties, and real estate activity was high in 2012 and 2013, although it has slowed in 2014.   Nearly 60% of the municipalities were not projected deferral of capital improvements, although 1/3 expect to reduce maintenance and 40% to defer capital.  The biggest challenge cities identified was street condition (23%, followed by sewer, stormwater and water although these were all under 16% which is a bit disappointing given the condition of much of this infrastructure).  Money remained their biggest challenge.  Total local government budgets are $3 trillion, and the bond market Is a robust $3.7 trillion.  New construction for local water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure is expected to reach $750 billion in 2014, with 3.2 and 4.8 billion respectively for water and sanitary sewer.

Pensions are the biggest liability and one that is critical for many local entities with their own pension plans (like Detroit).  Many others have or will migrate to a state plan, or were already part of a state plan.  Having a large pool off employees decreases risk to the pension plan and increased revenues (and future outlays).  Pension plans or Ponzi schemes?  Now that is the question….

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Earlier this year the Journal for AWWA had several articles about water use and infrastructure needs.  One of the major concerns that has arisen in older communities, especially in the Rust Belt and the West is that demands per person have decreased.  There are a number of reasons for this –the 1992 Energy Policy Act changes to plumbing codes that implemented low flush fixtures, the realization in the west that water supplies are finite and conservation is cheaper than new supplies, a decline in population, deindustrialization, and climate induced needs.  But all add up to the result that total water use has not really changed over the past 30 years and in many locales, water sales may have decreased.  Water utilities rely on water sales for revenues so any decrease in sales must be met with an increase in cost.  Price elasticity suggests the increase will be met with another decrease in sales, etc.  It is a difficult circle to deal with.  So less water, whether through deliberate water conservation or other means, creates a water revenue dilemma for utilities.  A concern about conserving to much and eliminating slack in the system also results.

Less water means less money for infrastructure.  Communities do not see a need for new infrastructure because there are fewer new people to serve.  Replacing old infrastructure has always been a more difficult sell because “I already have service, why should I be paying for more service” is a common cry, unless you are in my neighborhood where the water pipes keep breaking and we are begging the City to install new lines (they are on my street J)  Educating customers about the water (and sewer) system are needed to help resident understand the impacts, and risk they face as infrastructure ages.  They also want to understand that the solutions are “permanent” meaning that in 5 or 10 years we won’t be back to do more work.  Elected officials and projected elected officials (the tough one) should be engaged in this discussion because they should all be on the same page in selling the ideas to the public.  And the needs are big.  We are looking at $1 trillion just for water line replacement by 2050 and that is probably a low number(2010 dollars).  The biggest needs are in the south where infrastructure will start hitting its expected life.  The south want west will also be looking for about $700 billion in growth needs as well.  All this will cause a need for higher rates, especially with ¼ less low interest SRF funds avaialalbe this year from Congress.


Public water and sewer systems have the responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public they serve, just as engineers do.  This is includes not just complying with regulatory mandates (they are minimum standards), but enacting such precautions as are needed to address things not included in the regs.  Unfortunately we continue to pay too much attention on regulatory compliance and evaluate the condition of the system using unaccounted for water losses or leaks fixed in the system as a measure of condition.  That may be an incorrect assumption.  The problem is that unless we understand how the system operates, including how it deteriorates with time, the data from the past may well be at odds with the reality of the future.  For example, that leak in your roof can be a simple irritation for a long time if you ignore it.  But ignoring it creates considerable potential for damage, including roof failure if too much of the structure underneath is damaged.  With a water system, pipes will provide good service for many years will minimal indication of deterioration.  Then things will happen, but there is little data to indicate a pattern.  But like your roof leak, the damage has been done and the leaks are an indication of the potential for failure.  Bacteria, color, pressure problems and flow volumes are all indicators of potential problems, but long-term tracking is needed to determine develop statistical tools that can help with identifying end of life events.  Basic tools like graphs will not help here.

Construction to repair and replace local water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure is expected to reach $3.2 and $4.8 billion respectively for water and sanitary sewer. The federal SRF programs are only $1.7 Billion in SRF loans, 24% below 2012 and well below the levels identified by the federal government to sustain infrastructure condition.  The only reason for the decrease seems to be a demand by Congress to reduce budgets, especially EPA’s budget where this money resides.  But the 2008 recession and its lingering effects to date have deferred a significant amount of infrastructure investments, and the forecast does not rectify the past deficits, and likely does not address the current needs either.  Few water and sewer systems are flush with funds to update infrastructure and borrowing has become a difficult sell for many public officials.  Lake Worth, FL just had a $60 million bond issue for infrastructure redevelopment defeated by voters two weeks ago.  The officials know they need this infrastructure, but the public is unconvinced because few serious problems have occurred.  We have to get the public past this view so we can improve reliability and public safety.  Those are the arguments we need to demonstrate.  The question is how.

 


The first month of the fall semester has slammed me, which accounts for a little less blog activity on my part.  But as fall rolls in many local governments are dealing with final budgets, new projects and dealing with taxes and fees.  Students are back to school and industries are looking to the end of the year and 2015.  How fast time flies.  Our students that graduated last spring all have jobs and half of our seniors that will graduate in December do as well.  With engineers or contractors.

The good news is that the economy continues to tick up, construction and construction jobs are back to 2005 levels (which if you recall was a lot), and the stock markets are making money for somebody because they are up as well.  Alan Greenspan can complain that housing maybe lagging, but that is more a lack of people having funds or being able to move.  Meanwhile construction of projects that were deferred might be addressed?  Time will tell but it raises an interesting question –  can we plan on growth forever?  We assume a continuous growth rate (like 1 or 2% per year), but is that reasonable since it means more people come to an area each year than they did the year before?  Works for bacteria, maybe not so much for people.  Ask Detroit.  Or Cleveland.  And does this type of growth create unintended consequences for us?  I think this is a  good question for a future blog and of course a question that economists and politicians do not want to answer.  It would be highly disruptive to our plans.   So since it is election season again, we all need to be prepared for the inundation of campaign sales pitches that try to convince us to vote for someone, or more likely to vote against someone.  That’s probably not the way it was intended to go, but it’s what politics has degenerated to in so many places.  Ideology and adherence to it under any circumstances often prevents us from looking objectively at issues and reaching real solutions, some of which may have winners and losers, but may be necessary to improve long-range forecasts.  Listen to the political patter and decide where the plan is.

For example, ignoring the evidence that the climate is changing, places constituents in perilous positions…..in the future.  Not now and few climate impacts need drastic immediate action.  But longer term, storm sewer will be inadequate, there will be less water stored in glaciers, less rainfall in places (like the southwestern US), more frequent flooding in coastal areas, etc.  The problem may be 50 years from now, but wholesale infrastructure programs take that long.  It took the US 50 years to build the interstate system.  Nearly 40 years to dig canals in south Florida, 20 year to acquire property for a reservoir in North Carolina, etc.  Things take time and meanwhile if we need to alter current practice, such as elevating roadways and building to avoid flooding, the time to start is now, not in 50 years when solving that problem is overwhelming.  Find those water sources now, so development and competitors can be controlled.  Finding water that may take 20 years to secure and construct is an unmanageable issue the year before you need it.  You need a plan.  Where do you hear that planning?

What about that failing infrastructure?  We tend to ignore it until it fails.  But if it fails, that can be catastrophic.  Engineers and operations personnel know deterioration occurs, and know that it will take time to plan, design and refurbish of replace infrastructure.  But projects continue to get deferred for lack of funds.  Aggressively planning repair and replacement may actually save money in the long-run, but our planning tends only to be short-term.  So how do we change that?  Perhaps the state agencies that require local planning to be submitted and approved will push for better evaluation of infrastructure.  GASB 34 clearly did not go far enough.  Too many communities do not track their work and even fewer document the conditions when they make repairs.  Too little data is collected on what fails, when and why.  WE can collect huge amounts of data with work orders that track work.  Perhaps a regulatory frontier.  Or maybe, just maybe, some enlightened managers will decide tracking information is actually fairly easy.  The question is the platform.  Stay tuned… we are working on that…


In my last blog I outlined the 10 states with the greatest losses since 2006.  Florida was not among them, yet given our legislature’s on-going discussion and hand-wringing with the state run Citizen’s insurance, you would  think we have a major ongoing crisis with insurance here.  Maybe we do, but I will provide some facts.  Citizens,averaged between 1 and 1.5 million policies over the last 8 years.  according the the South Florida SunSentinel, the average person pays $2500 per year for windstorm coverage.  Somehow I think I want that bill because my insurance is about $6000 through my private insurer and when I had Citizens it was $5700/yr.  But I digress.

Let’s assume there is 1.2 million policies over that time paying the #2500/yr. That totals.$3 billion a year in premiums.  That means Citizens should have reserves of $24 billion because they have not paid-out since 2006.  They have $11 billion according to the SunSentinel sources.  So wher eis the rest of the money?  We can assume there are operating expenses.  They pay their executives very well for a government organization.  I am sure they pay the agents as well.  I asked a couple friends in the industry and they indicate that for private companies, about half your premium goes the the agent who writes the policy.  That’s only Citizens.

Let’s assume there are conservatively another 8 million policies in Florida and since many of those are inland, let’s day they average $1500/yr.  If you have it for less, check out your policy!.  That means there is another $12 billion collected each year for a total of $15 billion per year.

Now let’s look at storms.  According to Malmstadt, et al 2010, the ten largest storms 1900–2007, corrected for 2005 dollars are as follows:.

Rank   Storm                         Year        Loss($bn)

1 Great Miami                        1926       129.0

2 Andrew                               1992        52.3

3 Storm                                  1944       35.6

4 Lake Okeechobee               1928       31.8

5 Donna                                1960       28.9

6 Wilma                                  2005       20.6

7 Charlie                                2004        16.3

8 Ivan                                     2004        15.5

9 Storm # 2                            1949        13.5

10 Storm # 4                          1947       11.6

So for all bu the top 9 storms in a 107 year history,the annual receipts exceed the losses for a storm.   The total over the period is $450 billion (adjusted to 2005 dollars)  That means an average of $4 billion per year.  So what is the issue?  Sure a big storm could wipe out the trust fund, but that is what Lloyd;’son London, re-insurers and the ability to borrow funds is all about.

I suggest that the fuzz is really about is this.  Most people do not understand the concept of an insurance pool.  That includes many public officials.  The idea of insurance is to pool resources is to collect huge sums of money so that if something bad occurs, there is the ability to compensate people for their losses.  Insurance is a good thing but individually we hope it is never us that needs to be compensated because that means something bad happened.  But we expect our premiums to pay into that pool, build large pools of money, and have money when you need it. The more people that pay in, the more the  risk is split and lower the likelihood that any individual suffers a loss.  Hence the lower risk should lower premiums.  And people who live in high risk area should pay more than those who don’t.  Flood plains, dry forests, coastal areas, high wind areas, tornado alley, etc are all high risk.  Florida is one, but clearly there are many others,

So Citizens has a pile of money. Most private insurance companies should also, although their money is invested and they expect most of that will not be paid out.  I suspect the concern is a fear that the pile of cash will create a public furor, but that shows a lack of communication and education.  Cash is good.  Lots of it is better.  It’s like running surpluses in government or in your personal savings account. The idea is to have money when you need it.  Running at a point where you never have surpluses guarantees you will have deficits that require cuts in services,and possibly losses of jobs when the economy tanks again.   For insurance, those losses occur when big event hit.  Fortunately those are infrequent, but they have and will happen.  We need the cash pools on hand to protect our citizens just in case.    In the meantime we need some leadership and education of the public.

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