Investments in the Utility – Part 3


In the prior blogs we talked about how investments in infrastructure helped to build economies and limit public health risk, and that utilities were not spending the needed amounts.  The question was why.   Data were analyzed for a set of 40 utilities in Florida. 2016 was used as the model year with the 2017 budget and 2016 CAFR.  Census data came from 2000, 2010 and estimates for 2017.

Figure 9 shows that the larger utilities have higher amounts of fund balance, while Figure 10 indicates the relationship – utilities with higher net plant asset to replacement value ratios, have higher fund balance to budget ratios.  Hence they invest and are healthier, but why?

Rates, and the issues with cost of service, are another set of factors.  For this analysis, the operational and financial issues are generally straightforward.  Information on revenues, expenditures, budgets, customer costs, and debt obligations were gathered.  Similar comparisons occur with operating factors:  reliability, system expansion, maintenance needs, and economies-of-scale are common factors regardless of the delivery mechanism.  In updating a study first done in 1997, and updated in 1999, compared cost of delivery.  These studies noted that (Bloetscher, 1997, 1999):

  • The comparative statistic that provided the best picture of the impact to the customer were the cost per thousand gallons for water treatment, water distribution, sewer collection and wastewater treatment, which clearly demonstrate the economy-of-scale of the larger utility operations versus small scale operations.
  • The economy-of-scale arguments for utility operations were realized. The data supports the long-held contention of the USEPA and other regulatory officials that smaller utilities simply do not have the cash flow to operate their systems without higher costs and higher bills.
  • The newer systems have a lesser cost than the older systems, as measured in the cost to maintain miles of pipe, but this does not translate to plant operations costs.
  • Generally, the rate structures are similar; that being that there is an availability charge and a volumetric charge. Given this fact, the economies-of-scale of the larger systems will permit them to fund more capital projects (or provide higher General Fund subsidies) than the smaller systems, and will permit more debt funding.
  • The smaller utilities generally are accumulating enough costs to handle their operating requirements, but insufficient funds to utilize for reinvestment in the system.
  • The larger systems raise significant revenues for the construction of improvements on the system (via RRI and bond funds), which is more than the other utilities generally do.
  • Debt service appears to drive rates for most of the utilities regardless of the disparity between the size of the system and the cost per thousand gallons to produce, collect, and distribute or treat.

 

For this study, the same comparative statistic of the impact to the customer were the cost per thousand gallons for water treatment, water distribution, sewer collection and wastewater treatment was undertaken (see Figure 11-14).  As shown in the earlier work, the economy-of-scale arguments for utility operations were realized.  However the amounts being transferred to the general funds we more (see Figure 15).  Figure 16 shows that the smaller systems tend to have a higher percentage of transfers.  Note that the rates vary across utility sizes (Figure 17).

The data gathered indicates that utilities are underfunded, and under-invested.  To reduce potential health risks, this needs to change.  At the same time, trends appear to be a key to assess the potential for at risk utilities.  Hence a future project would review data for the past 15-20 years for trends, identify patterns of altered investments. An unanswered question is the lingering impact of the 2008-2011 economic crisis where local governments balanced their general fund budgets via these transfers from the utility funds.

The next step is to undertake the next phase of the study – another 30 Florida utilities, plus utilities in Michigan, Ohio, Colorado and North Carolina – a little geographic diversity to see if the trends hold across states.  If your utility, or if you know of a utility interested in participating, please contact me.

 

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