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The Flint saga continues.  The latest is that they continue to use Detroit water, but will convert to the new Lake Huron supply in 2018. The argument now is who’s water plant will be used. The County is building a plant.   John Young notes that the Mayor of Flint wants to use their own plant.  I think we know how that worked out last time. All the non-elected officials overseeing the City say buy from Genessee County.  Should be interesting to see how that plays out.

Meanwhile Midwest regional EPA officials appear are being criticized for failing to deal with the problem in a timely fashion.  EPA delayed their emergency declaration for 7 months, but EPA says the state action prevented EPA from acting.  This is exactly what the states asked for when they persuaded Reagan to delegate authority from EPA to the states.  Then the finger pointing starts when state officials do not react quickly because the state legislature cut their budget and no one is asking about that like they did in Walkerton in 2001.  It could have been predicted especially when too many states have legislatures that want to starve the bureaucracy.  But they forget why the bureaucracy was there to begin with – because something bad happened and government reacted to it by passing laws and creating oversight.  Delete the oversight and bad things happen.  It is human nature.

That will play out, but there still is the problem of the people who made the decisions in the first place.  As the elected officials in the class I taught this summer noted, it was a political decision to save money that created this problem to start with, not an operation issue.  The operational issue came up after the elected officials decided to start up a 50 year old plant that had not been run more than 18 months in 50 years, and after improvements were quickly made to the plant, but never tested.  Not sure how the engineers (sorry) let that happen, but why is it that no elected officials have been scrutinized for their bad decisions?  It makes us all look bad and sends a poor message to the residents of the country, not just Flint.

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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!


I could not find any actual laws or rules issues here, but does it bother anyone else that it is increasingly common for big engineering contracts to have lawyers, lobbyists, etc. get involved in what is intended to be a qualifications based selection process?  I find little that specifically addresses the issue beyond some inference in older ASCE canons.  In Florida, the intent of the statutory selection process might be is that governmental agencies “shall negotiate a contract with the most qualified firm for professional services at compensation which the agency determines is fair, competitive, and reasonable.” But wouldn’t employing lobbyists and lawyers frustrate this process ?.  And it is not like Florida hasn’t had several elected official go to jail and/or be indicted over such issues.  So as the public becomes more aware of these activities, does it create a more negative perception of engineers?  And is this good for either the engineering profession or the local governments (and their utilities) involved in the selection process?  The comment that “that’s how business get done” is not an acceptable argument when the priority purpose of engineers, and utility operators is the protection of the HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC.  The concept of qualifications-based selection processes enacted for public agencies is that getting the professional who has the best set of qualifications usually means fewer issues arise since they have designed similar projects before and know the pitfalls.  Someone who has not, likely will not, which can add unexpected costs to a job.  Just a thought, but maybe it is time to think about this seriously.


Once upon a time, many years ago there was a young city manager in a backwood town in the south. He had been told he was a bright young man, and had done well in city manager school. He was full of ideas on how to serve the public to make things better for the community and the people in the community, realizing you can’t get rich being a city manager. Getting rich was not his issue – he wanted to help people and thought he could bring his education and ideas to bear on the many problems city’s face. He was also very entrepreneurial – he tried to organize the city to operate like the business that it was by trying to make operations more efficient, providing training to employees that basically never had any, developing mechanisms to track work performed, and updating infrastructure (piping, curbs, sewers, treatment plants). He spent 60-80 hours a week, including countless nights each week at his job, no doubt underpaid. For the most part, the employees bought into his ideas because, well, he never asked them to do something he wouldn’t do, and often would go into the field to work with them on important projects to show them what was needed or what he expected. The staff became well trained and efficient. So far, so good.

Over time he noticed a few interesting trends, but because he was young, he did not have a point of reference to understand them all. One he noticed was that the elected officials always asked for multiple alternatives. But when he presented more than one, he found that the worst option, the one most difficult to implement, or the one that would create added problems, always seemed to be the one chosen. Bad options were like a magnet for these elected officials. So he became more reluctant to present more than one option because doing so made his job much more difficult and, well the point of presenting options that have issues seems counterproductive to good government. Of course that created some friction.

Ok now that you are done laughing hysterically at this young man, keep in mind the story is true and happened less than 30 years ago, so this is not ancient history. It took a few years after frustration and stress took their toll and this young man moved on in his career. City management was just too stressful. It took a few more years to understand that answer to the options riddle – the bad options were chosen because some was lobbying the elected officials for that bad option. Why? Because those lobbying always knew someone who could benefit from the need to “fix” the problem created by that option. So the idealist meets the reality – kind of deflating. He moved on from there.

So how does that affect utilities? Think about your budgets, and especially your capital budgets. Figure out what you NEED to do your job, and then figure out if you have a budget strategy to get it. Do you pad your budget to insure the budget office doesn’t arbitrarily cut your request, because “that’s what they do?” Do your elected officials delay capital projects because it is an election year and they do not want to raise rates? Does the city manager remove the new hires because he needs more money to be diverted to the general fund? Sound familiar? Welcome to the game this young man found so many years ago. 30 years and things definitely have not improved. When you run a business, you know what you need to do the job. You should be able to ask for what you need, and get it without a lot of conflict. Your budget and finance directors should be SUPPORT positions, not gatekeepers. Their job is to find money to pay for operations. You should set the need, and they find the funds, but it doesn’t work that way does it?

The budget battle is a huge expense for every community, and one that largely provides no real benefit but detracts from productivity. None of the game playing helps the utility or the ratepayers, just like the bad options don’t help the community at large either. Yet it is funny that over time, city managers have moved away from people with technical backgrounds in public works and public administration toward people with business experience. The argument is that we need to run the city more like a business, so this should be a good fit. But it is not in part because there is a lack of understanding of the underlying public works services. Public works is a service, not a business. As a result, we see far too much political expediency as opposed to benefits to the payors.

From a business perspective, creating a series of enterprise funds like water, sewer, storm water, roads, and parks is a step in the right direction, but only if those separate enterprises (think companies) can stand on their own. For example, it is completely inappropriate to use your utility to fund the general fund. Borrow from it, yes; some purchased services, yes; huge subsidies, no. When large amounts of funding are diverted, it means that both the general fund and the utility suffer (and for the moment let’s ignore the legal issue if the utility rate base is not the same as the city tax base). Business rarely diverts large revenue streams from other enterprises to keep them afloat for long, so why in government, do business people pursue this path? In the business world, if the general fund was such a loser, we’d cut it loose, or spin it off and make it stand on its own. Ok we can’t really cut the general fund loose (police and fire are in there and we love them), but making is stand on its own is what finance, budget and city managers should be pushing elected officials to do. That would make set up a system of full-cost operations, which will allow residents to understand the true cost of their services, which is completely appropriate. Subsidizing services at the expense of public health is not a good long-term policy is it? . And while you are at if general fund, where are those surpluses we ran to allow us to reduce borrowing for capital projects?

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