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borrowing for infrastructure


How much money goes to the states from the Federal government? Ever wonder about that? And how do we react? We talk about the need to tighten the federal spending so we keep cutting back on the Superfund cleanup monies ($1 billion/yr), the State Revolving Fund loan system ($2.35 billion/yr), and under $2 billion/yr for clean energy systems. We are concerned about the projected increase of $66 billion/yr for the Affordable Care Act. But these sums are just a tiny component for the federal budget, which is dwarfed by the $3.1 trillion sent to the states during its 2013 fiscal year. So what are these funds? Retirement benefits, including Social Security and disability payments, veteran’s benefits; and other federal retirement and disability payments account for over 34% of these payments. Medicare in another 18%. Food assistance, unemployment insurance payments, student financial aid, and other assistance payments account for another 9%. Another 16% is for grants to state and local governments for a variety of program areas such as health care (half the amount is Medicaid), transportation, education, and housing and research grants. All the SRF and grant monies are in this 16%. Those water programs are barely visible in this picture. Contracts for purchases of goods and services for military and medical equipment account for another 13%, while smallest amount – salaries and wages for federal employees is 10%.  Keep in mind that federal employees have dropped from nearly 7 million to 4.4 million since 1967. No federal employment expansion going on there.

growth in fed payments

fed payments

So how much does this affect the states? Federal funds account for about 19 of the total gross domestic product of the US, a number that has been relatively consistent (within a few percentage points) for years. That is below its all-time highs, and about typical over the past 30 years. Figure 1 from a PEW report shows that federal funds are greater than 22% of the GDP in most southern states (which interestingly enough have the people that complain the most about the federal government intrusion), while the Plains states, Midwest, northeast and the west coast are generally below average, and the two coasts, especially complain the least. Mississippi, Virginia and New Mexico all top 30%.

figure nat fed spending by state

So let me see if I have this right – those that pay the least, but get the most, complain the most about their benefactors, and those that pay the most, but collect less, complain less. That is the message! What is WRONG with that picture? And those people? The problem is I see it every day at the local level and it is truly baffling. It means that somehow our politics gotten so out of whack that those in need the most, seem to continue to vote against their best interests? Marketing clearly is a problem but are we fooled that easily. A message that distracts from the reality is obvious, but this continuing trend is just truly weird. No wonder it is so hard to accomplish things.

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Most states were doing pretty well before the 2008 recession hit, but that ended in 2009. Most states had to make extremely difficult cuts or raise taxes, which was politically unacceptable. Of course invested pension systems received a lot of attention as their value dropped and long term sufficiency deteriorated, which was fodder for many changes in pensions, albeit not how they were invested. The good news is a lot of them came back in the ensuing 5 years, but 2015 may be different. A number of states have reported low earnings in 2015 and whether this may be the start of another recession. The U.S. economy has averaged a recession every six years since WWII and it has been almost seven years since the last contraction. With China devaluing their currency, this may upset the economic engine. At present there are analysts on Wall Street who suggest that some stocks may be overvalued, just like in 1999. If so, that does not bode well states like Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, Alaska and Pennsylvania that are dealing with significant imbalances between their expenses and incomes. Alaska has most of its revenue tied to oil, so when oil prices go down (good for most of us), it is a huge problem for Alaska that gives $2200 to every citizen in the state. An economic downturn portends poorly for the no tax, pro-business experiment in Kansas that has been unsuccessful in attracting the large influx of new businesses, or even expansion of current ones. California and next door Missouri, often chided by Kansas lawmakers as how not to do business, outperform Kansas.

Ultimately the issue that lawmakers must face at the state and as a result the local level is that tax rates may not be high enough to generate the funds needed to operate government and protect the states against economic down turns. There is a “sweet spot” where funds are enough, to deal with short and long term needs, but starving government come back to haunt these same policy makers when the economy dips.   It would be a difficult day for a state to declare bankruptcy because lawmakers refuse to raise taxes and fees.


Your grandma always told you to save money for a rainy day.  She wasn’t really talking about rainy days, but days when you had less or no income.  The press talks about the huge percentage of Americans that have little or no savings, and how compared to other countries, we are at a disadvantage during economic times.  A huge problem is that the same argument can be translated to governments, which must provide services, and often more services during economic downturns.  But if they have no savings, how are they to accomplish this?  They do not want to raise taxes and fees in down situations, so won’t the loss of services just make things worse?

A recent PEW reports suggests that states “had about half the reserves necessary to address budget gaps during the first year of the Great Recession.  The 50 states had about $60 billion set aside in the summer of 2008, but in fiscal 2009, budget gaps across the country totaled $117 billion, about twice what states had in reserve. The budget gaps continued to grow in 2010 and many states struggled with shortfalls for years afterward.  Bad news, but the news really does not improve.  They report that 37 states have legal caps that prevent them from saving enough to weather recessions or even enough to substantially offset revenue losses, and most of those are based on some percentage of the prior year’s revenues.  Why?  Short-term views?  Most governments figure on keeping enough cash on hand to pay bills during tax seasons. That accounts for 60-90 days of funds.  Far too little for dealing with economic impacts.  Far too few state governments recognize the importance of saving, figuring that cutting taxes during time of plenty and giving back to taxpayers is a better use of funds.  Then it is someone else’s issue when the next economic hiccup occurs – and it will.  Unless you raise your cap now as Minnesota and Virginia have recently done.

But the issue is not just a state issue.  It is a local and a utility issue as well.  Local governments are closer to the ground, have less leeway in their budgets and often have far too little funding as a result of resistance to raising property taxes, user fees and over-dependence on state shared sales tax, which often drops precipitously during a recession.  Same goes for sin and gas tax dependence.  When people slow smoking, or as oil prices drop, so do revenues.  Ask Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas, North Dakota and others that are oil rich states about their budget this past year.  The legislatures were begging Grover Norquist to let them out of their no tax increase pledges.  He said no of course, because he doesn’t want government to function properly.  So those legislators were stuck in the either “do the right thing” or “get whacked by Grover in the next election” conundrum.  You know what they did because they want to get re-elected  That doesn’t help the citizens of those states.  Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook on Alaska’s general obligation and appropriation-backed debt from stable to negative. That will cost them in the future. St. Louis, Moody’s downgraded the city’s credit rating one step to A1, citing “the city’s weak socioeconomic profile; reliance on earnings taxes which are due for voter reauthorization in 2016.”  Diversity in industry and taxes is beneficial.  Too often this gets lost in the desire to do more with less, but doing more means you need more funding!  And you need to collect those savings as grandma counselled!


As technology advances I have an observation, and a question that needs to be asked and answered.  And this could be a pretty interesting question.  Back in the day, say 100 or 150 years ago, there were not so many people.  Many activities occurred where there were few people and impacts on others were minimal.  In some cases ecological damage was significant, but we were not so worried about that because few people were impacted by that ecological damage.  In the 20th century, in urban locations, the impact of one’s activities on others became the basis for zoning laws – limiting what you could do with your property because certain activities negatively impacted others.  And we certainly had examples of this – Cuyahoga River burning for one.  Of course this phenomenon of zoning and similar restrictions was mostly an urban issue because there potential to impact others was more relevant in urban areas.  We also know that major advances in technology and human development tend to occur in population centers (think Detroit for cars, Pittsburgh and Cleveland for steel, Silicon Valley, etc.).  People with ideas tend to migrate to urban areas, increasing the number of people and the proximity to each other.  Universities, research institutions, and the like tend to grow up around these industries, further increasing the draw of talent to urban areas.  The observation is that urban areas tend to have more restrictions on what people do than rural areas.  So the question – do people consciously make the migration to urban areas realizing that the migration for the potential financial gain occur with the quid pro quo of curbing certain freedoms to do as you please?  Of does this artifact occur once they locate to the urban areas?  And is there a lack of understanding of the need to adjust certain activities understood by the rural community, or does it become yet another point of philosophical or political contention?  I have blogged previously about the difference between rural and urban populations and how that may affect the approach of utilities, but read a recent article that suggests that maybe urban citizens accept that financial gains potential of urban areas outweighs the need to limit certain abilities to do as you please to better the entire community.  They are motivated by potential financial opportunities that will increase their standing and options in the future.  So does that mean urban dwellers understand the financial tradeoff differently than rural users?  Or is it a preference issue.  And how does this translate to providing services like water to rural customers, who often appear to be more resistant to spending funds for improvements?  While in part their resistance may be that their incomes tend to be lower, but is their community benefit concern less – i.e. they value their ability to do as they please more than financial opportunities or the community good?  I have no answer, but suggest that this needs some further study since the implications may be significant as rural water systems start to approach their life cycle end.


The true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases.  The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future?  That is the question as the next 20 years play out. Making useful assumptions about increases in demands, prices, inflation rates etc. are key to useful projections and long-term sustainability. Building too much or too little capacity for example can have disastrous consequences (to the ratepayers on the former, to the local economy for the latter).

Getting funding relies on economic strength, a problem of you are in a depressed area (Detroit) or a boom that could crash at any time (North Dakota).  P3 opportunities are available for cash strapped communities but they come with a cost.  Risk must be allocated fairly – the private community will not take on too much risk without increasing costs significantly. Loss of control is one of those risk conversion issues.  Extensive planning and feasibility analyses should be expected – far more scrutiny than most utilities are used to.  The economic strength of the community is important to private investors.

In a prior blog we talked about the boom towns of North Dakota.  Things were booming in 2013 but the downturn in oil prices may get ugly.  The need for more fracking wells may have decreased (at least temporarily) and the decrease in the oil and gas costs has cut into local revenues, so is this is the time to keep planning for the boom?  South Florida did this in the early 2000s – and well, that real estate boom put quite a dent in the economy and population estimates for 2020 and 2030.  The balloon popped and so did the economy.  South Florida had the resiliency to bounce back because of weather and proximity to South America.  We have seen the result to an industrial economy – where a community relies on industry, well industry can be fickle.  Ask Detroit.  Or Cleveland.  Or any number of other Rust Belt cities.  Now they have infrastructure, but much of it is underused.
So while the Plains states plan for the boom, the boom has settled in some places. Already the oil and gas industry has shed 100,000 jobs (many high salary).  Texas, Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma are facing financial challenges in 2015 due to funding losses.  Alaska is dipping into reserves.  But that doesn’t mean the results of the 2010-2014 boom are not continuing, or at least portions of them.  Frack water continues to be discharged to local wastewater systems, but the revenues to pay for the needed upgrades is lacking.  Effluent limits for nitrogen and TOC for some rivers have decreased as a result of constant increased loading to the streams (more flow increases total loads, so if flows remain the same, the concentrations must decrease to maintain total loading).  The costs to reduce ammonia, for example from 10 mg/l to 2 or 3 mg/L can be $1-2/1000 gallon – over 50% or more of the current cost for treatment.

So is it a surprise that some communities fight the boom times?  Booms create disruption and uncertainly, and a need for technology (and costs).  Maybe stability does matter, as it can contain costs and treatment requirements.  However the boom can help communities in financial distress.  Detroit and Flint would love a boom – both have the infrastructure in place to support it as opposed to rural communities in the Plains.  But that’s is a key – they already HAVE the infrastructure in place.  The Plains, well, do not.

There is a lot of older, underutilized infrastructure out there.  Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Philadelphia are among the older industrial cities that have stable populations – people that live there most of their lives, have a trained and educated workforce, and normally have lots of water and infrastructure, and lots of potential employees, all of which are underutilized and at risk due to economic losses. But the booms rarely go to older cities. How that is?  Is this a leadership issue?  Convenience?  Quick profits?  And how long will the boom last?  Is it a matter of lack of understanding or regulations that creates the boom?  A combination of factors?  A better PR program?

Remember we all play defense.  Industry does not.  Industry plays offense all the time.  The private sector mode is play offense.  Get the message out.  Frame the message.  Win the game.  Is winning the game at any cost the right answer?  For boomers it is.  What about the rest of us?


A Ponzi scheme is an illegal program whereby investors are promised big return son investments in a short period of time, and where the underlying basis for this return is deliberately mis-stated.  We continually find people who perpetrate Ponzi schemes and when they are finally caught, they get put in jail.  For those unsure, a Ponzi scheme is defined as a scheme where the scheme operator says they will pay a high return to its investors from their original investment, but instead uses money from new capital paid to the operator by new investors rather than from profit earned by the operator.  Hence it is a flow through of money from people putting money in to people who are getting out.  To get returns on the investments for the earlier investors, the pool of new people must increase with time, so that there are always more people paying in that there were previously.  It that does not occur, then we have a problem.

What is a retirement system?  A retirement system is a form of deferred compensation used to attract and keep workers, by deferring a portion of their pay 10, 20 30 or 40 years from now.  It is part of the compensation to the employee.  With a retirement system, people pay into a program, where their money is invested.  A retirement system tends to rely on the fact that the number of people paying in increases exponentially so that the actual invested dollars are never touched, instead the new proceeds exceed the monies paid out.  For a pension, plan it assumes your invested dollars remain invested and profitable, and that the revenues from the new people in the system, exceed the monies paid to retirees.  What is the difference?  Well, the retirement system actually supposedly has assets while Ponzi scheme does not.  Otherwise, the systems work similarly – dollars paid in generally go out to others, and there is an assumption that the number or payees increases exponentially (a percentage every year).

So what happens to a pension plan when the number of employees decreases from 6.7 million to 4.4 million over 40 years?  Would you expect there to be a pension plan problem?  And if so why?  And who is at fault?  That is exactly what has happened to federal government employees since 1967.  And many states have seen reductions in the last 20 years as well.  So it is any wonder why these pension systems might be at risk?  The push to privatize services ensures that the basic assumption that the number of payees in a pension plan increases exponentially will be violated, which makes the pension plan vulnerable.  And ho is at fault.  I would suggest the people pushing privatization, who look only at short term consequences as opposed to long-term impacts.  Perhaps this needs to be part of any such discussion going forward.  Just a thought…


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.

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