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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?

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Last week was one heckuva week for societal problems related to race relations.  Seems like someone turned over a rock and the 1950s crawled out.  We started with Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has been using federal property (read our land) for grazing his cattle for 20 years without paying for it, said after the armed confrontation with federal officials, that “I wonder if Negros weren’t better off as slaves.”  But he says he is not a racist, but wow.  That’s right up there with Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Native Americans in his book 15 years ago. 

 Then we had newspaper columnist and right-wing wonk, Thomas Sowell, who is black, saying in a recent column that “you are poor because you don’t work.”  And it is your fault you don’t work.  In “higher income families, people work.”  So using that line of racist nonsense, given that minorities are disproportionately un- or under-employed, does Mr. Sowell really believe that it is really the choice of all of these people not to work?!  Could there be any other causal links like the lack of education, decaying infrastructure or the lack of local opportunities in their community that might just come into play? That’s like saying Detroit’s problem is not the lack of job opportunities, but the fact that no one wants to work in Detroit.  I think not.

The we have Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, who was taped making racists comments, then received a lifetime ban and multi-million dollar fine for his comments about minorities, and then, instead of apologizing, states that he wishes he’d just paid the woman who taped him off.  Huh?   Of course it is not the first time for Mr. Sterling who lost a case several years ago over his practices of renting property in LA, so I guess we should have expected it.

Of course there are those who argue these folks were simply misunderstood.  Maybe Mr. Sowell was just pandering to his fan base, but what does that say about his fan base that he can write a column that purports that “you are poor because you don’t work” because you don’t want to work and no one says anything?  He clearly appears to be besmirching the inner city minority population, but as I noted in a prior blog, rural America is significantly worse off economically than urban America.  Rural America is where health care suffers, the lack of health insurance is pervasive, income are lower and unemployment higher.  There are poor across all races, and in all settings.  And given his fan base is includes a lot of poor, white, rural people who aren’t making a lot of money or who can’t find jobs, he’s talking about you!

The Bundy comments stem from his standoff with federal officials over many years of not paying for grazing (like the rest of us could get away with that!).  He and those that came armed to his defense are more indicative of a larger, far-right, anti-government sentiment around the country that has persisted for years.  The west has a number of these groups (recall Ruby Ridge, Waco, Black Hawk helicopter-ists, etc.) that are basically anarchists that disagree with America as it is today.    All white.  But of course as we have seen in the Sudan, Rwanda, the middle east and throughout history, hate can come from all races and religions. All harboring hatred of others not like them.  Understanding why is more difficult, but the commonality seems to be that they all have the perception that the others are somehow treated differently, which allows them to move up the economic ladder faster or allows them to “game the system.”  The perception, which may be completely false, persists because it somehow justifies the actions of these people.

So given the comments of the past week, are we back in the 1950s?  Or 1870s?  How are we here in 2014?  Prejudice and hate were not wiped away magically by civil rights legislation, integration, communication and education alone, but really, does this type of attitude have a place in today’s world? If so why?  Hate has created trouble in the world for thousands of years.  Hate is a problem because hate is a means to distract people from real problems or to force your problems on others.  But in truth, psychologists will tell you that in most cases, the Haters tend to hate themselves, which is something we all need to remember.  Hate is developed because you cannot control a situation or someone else gets something you want.  Therefore it is that someone else’s fault, not yours.  It is easier when race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or other factors represent the “somebody else,” but the reality is haters hate themselves first, then project their hate onto others.  They need help. Professional help. Counseling.  Many of them. Even whole societies. They need to go get help for themselves and the rest of us. 


So Detroit defaulted on it’s debt obligations.  Do does that impact you?  Well, that depends on whether you are a utility looking revenue bonds, a city looking for general fund bonds or some combination.  The issue in Detroit with debt is that they pledged the full faith and credit of their taxing authority to repay the debt.  Their taxing ability was insufficient to accomplish this goal, which means that there could now be distrust in that promise for other cities.  So if you are a city and you are making this pledge, Detroit could impact you, or at least create more review on your balance sheets.  If you are a utility that is pledging revenues that have no limitations on amount, the concern is likely less.  Of course in either cases, the question is what the rest of your balance sheet looks like.  If you have no reserves, do not charge the full cost for service, have a heavy debt load, have high rates already, or send a lot of funds to the general fund, that could be a problem.  If you have avoided these pitfalls, the bond market will see much less of an issue. 

Keep in mind that Detroit is not the only default – another big one is the Birmingham and several other create questions about general fund uses of funds, which makes it of greater importance to keep our financial house in order.  IN part this can be done by creating the appropriate enterprise funds and remove those services from the general property tax fund.  That permits local focus on the true cost of general taxing users and creates a delineation between general fund and enterprise costs.  That can help elected officials focus on the true general fund issues:  police, fire, EMS, administration without hiding those costs with subsidies from other funds.

 


After my last post, I was asked about sea level rise and how to get started with the issue in a very “red” area as it was characterized.  I have come to the conclusion that the insurance industry will make sea level rise real for politicians in those places where it is impermissible for bureaucrats to discuss it.  Here’s why.  Say you have a house in a low lying area that is vulnerable to sea level rise and/or storm surge.  One is permanent, the other temporal, but in both cases are potentially catastrophic if you live in this house.  You bought the house, got a loan for 80 or 90% of its value and then got insurance for it.  Now the insurance is there to insure that if your house gets swept away or damaged, there will be enough money to pay off your loan.  That’ s what many people miss.  Insurance is for the bank, no you, which is why your loan documents require that you get and hold insurance while you have the house.  After your loan is paid off, there is no such requirement.

Now let’s say we are out 20 years.   You have enjoyed your house but have decided to sell it.  Now the banks will value it and are willing to loan say 80% of its value.  They of course assume that the house will increase in value with time so even if you make no improvements, if they have to foreclose on it they will get their money back (a major part of the problem with the financial crisis of 2008 was they banks could not get their money out of the properties).   Even if it doesn’t, as your loan is paid down, their risk decreases.   The loan documents require that you get insurance to cover your costs.

So far so good, but what happens when the insurers will not give you insurance for the full value of the property?  In Florida the State creates Citizen’s to deal with the fact that private, commercial insurers saw too much risk in coastal areas and refused to issue policies.  Now the State and Citizen’s have the risk.  Fine, but that isn’t dealing with the same issue – if the insurer think the value of the property will decrease, or the risk increases a lot, they will not issue policies. Or they will revise policies to say they will pay once – but will not insure you for rebuilding.  You may think this will not happen, but Citizen’s is already discussing this option.  Hence if you lose your house, they will pay you (so you can pay the bank, and then you are on your own.  Now the bank may be willing to offer you a distressed property as an options (Welcome to Detroit), but that won’t be in the same risk zone.

Take this further, let’s say Citizen’s for example says we will pay full value if you lose the house but will not insure a rebuild?  That means they probably will not give insurance to the guy who wants to buy our house in 20 years.  How much is your house worth now?  Probably nothing, which means now the bank will be looking at your insurance coverage and say – whoa – if the house is not worth anything on a resale, that means they may not get paid when you sell your house if you sell if before it is paid off (the norm)!!  That is an unacceptable risk, and they need a solution.  Of course if your house suddenly has no value, it means local governments get no revenue for taxes (good for you, but bad for providing essential services like storm water.  You may not believe this discussion is happening, but it is.

So here’s what I think happens.  I think the banks figure this out and start looking at vulnerability as a part of loans.  I think they start thinking about what the value in 20 or 30 years might be and if they can get their loan monies back out of property.  That will slow property values.  I think the insurance industry does the same, and working with banks will further set the prices acceptable for vulnerable property.  They are not good investments. If you own such property, you may get insurance in the short-term, but long-term your house value may decrease.  At some point, your house will have no resale value, unless……

BUT there iis a big caveat to all this.  Coastal areas are high value markets.  Lots of activity and lots of investment opportunities.  It all depends on what is being done to protect those properties, and depending on the federal governments to bail out private property is unrealistic.  It is a local issues, so I also think the banks and insurance industry will start looking at what local governments are doing to protect investments in private property.  Do they have a sea level rise adaptation plan?  Are the storm water systems updated/upgrades/maintained?  Are roads, water supplies and sewer systems capable of functioning under the changed condition?   Is there a 50 or 100 year vision on how the community adapt to nature?  If yes, there is comfort that investments are protected.  If everyone’s head is buried in denial…..Detroit’s calling.  U-haul anyone?

PS  No disrespect to Detroit, my father’s hometown and the home to many of my current and departed family.  For those who do not know, Detroit is high, has access to lots of water, sewer, roads, power and lots of land at reasonable cost, along with a jobs and manufacturing history.  Perfect opportunity, one not lost on our ancestors.

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