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IMG_7385One of the issues I always include in rate studies is a comparison of water rates with other basic services.  Water always comes in at the bottom.  But that works when everyone has access and uses those services.  Several years ago a study indicated that cable tv was in 87-91 % of home.  At the time I was one of the missing percentage, so I thought it was interesting.  However, post the 2008 recession, and in certain communities, this may be a misplace comparison.  A recent study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman notes that the top 0.1% have assets that are worth the same as the bottom 90% of the population!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Occupy Wall Street had it wrong.  It’s not the 1% it is the 0.1%.  This is what things were like in the 1920s, just before the Great Depression.  The picture improved after the implementation of tax policies (the top tax rate until 1964 was 90% – yes you read that right – 90%).  Then the tax rate was slowly reduced to deal with inflation.  The picture continued to improve until supply side economics was introduced in the early 1980s when the disparity started to rise again (see their figure below), tripling since the late 1970s (you recall the idea was give wealthy people more money and they would invest it in jobs that would increase employment opportunities and good jobs for all, or something like that).  Supply side economics did not/does not work (jobs went overseas), and easy credit borrowing and education costs have contributed to the loss of asset value for the middle class as they strove to meet job skills requirements for better jobs.  In addition wages have stagnated or fallen while the 0.1% has seen their incomes rise.  The problem has been exacerbated since 2008 as they report no recovery in the wealth of the middle class and the poor.  So going back to my first observation – what gets cut from their budget, especially the poor and those of fixed pensions?  Food?  Medicine?  Health care?  My buddy Mario (86 year old), still works because he can’t pay his bills on social security.  And he does not live extravagantly.  So do they forego cable and cell phones?  If so the comparison to these costs in rate studies does not comport any longer.  It places at risk people more at risk.  And since, rural communities have a lower income and education rate than urban areas, how much more at risk are they?  This is sure to prove more interesting in the coming years.  Hopefully with some tools we are developing, these smaller communities can be helped toward financial and asset sustainability.  But it may require some tough decisions today.

Income percent

 

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I am in the initial stages of a project to look at economy of scale, utility bench-markings, asset management and impacts of economic disruption on utility systems. I should note that I am looking for volunteers, so let me know. But an initial question is whether economy of scale still applies. We think it should but given the disparities across the US, does it. As a quick survey, I enlisted several volunteer utilities to provide me with some basic information that I sued to create some ratios. And then we discussed them. The baselines were accounts and cost per millions of gallons produced.  The graphics are shown below. Economy –of-scale is alive and well. That means if you have a small utility, you cannot expect to have the same costs/gallon, or the same rates, as your larger neighbors. If you do, you are probably shoring your maintenance or capital programs. That leads to bigger costs later. Instead of comparing yourself to your larger neighbors, see what happens when you compare yourself to cable and cellphones in your area. You may be surprised.

economy of scale MGY economy of scale cost per MGY


So I am training a group of public officials about utilities. Many have limited experience; others much more so. The interesting question that came up is how these officials should communicate with their customers. Interesting question and one that often receives little thoughts. So I thought their thoughts might be enlightening, keeping in mind that I have abbreviated some of them, and this was a discussion. Here are the thoughts they provided, in no particular order:

“Not the newspaper, most residents do not receive the newspaper anymore”

“Who are our customers and how do they communicate? Until you can answer that, you will not reach them. Ask them.”

“If 37% percent of your customers are direct deposit – should we send them direct mailings?” Response: “Yes! They will not think it is a bill and they might read it.”

“Most people discard bill stuffers without reading them . That wastes a lot of time and money.”

“We have a Facebook page, but we don’t just talk utilities. We talk about things that might interst them like strawberry shortcake recipes and current community events.”

“We use twitter and Facebook”

“We have a website, but we found the website was useless if we did not keep it current constantly. It takes effort and someone with that responsibility to accomplish that.”

“We use Facebook to get people interested, then use it to direct them to our website.”

“Every utility should have a public relations person that deals with media, and can brand your utility to the public.”

“Understand your demographics and then figure out how they communicate – phone, twitter, Facebook, on line, etc. Maybe all of these, interconnected. You can find local people who will do this for your professionally. The results are worth the investment.”

“Radio is useless, just like the paper. Avoid the television because they really only want to report the bad stuff.”

“Blogs tied to websites and Facebook are helpful.”

“Many venues are needed – make the message the same.”

“Ask the young people in your community – they will know how the reach the residents.”

“Don’t focus just on utility issues, add content on topics they might be interested in.”

“Public relations is as important as providing good service.   It is part of your job.”

“worth every dollar spent.”

Interesting isn’t it. I wonder if the mainstream media will take note? And I wonder how many utilities do not have these things and will consider it as a part of the coming budget cycle?


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?


There is a recent iPos MORI study that evaluated the perception and reality of issues in 14 western, industrialized countries to determine how well the perception of the populace matched reality.  The US was one of those surveyed.  No surprise, most Americans’ perception is very different than reality because the news and politics get in the way of the facts.  The study found for example that Americans perceived that teenage birth rates were 24 % of girls vs the real number of 3%, that 32% of the population is immigrants vs 13% actual, and that the majority of people perceiving welfare were black vs. the reality of 39% (38% are white and 15% Hispanic).  The states with the largest number of welfare recipients are in the northeast, which are also the states that received the smallest amount of federal funding per capita.  Talk about misperceptions.

While other countries have similar misperceptions, perpetuating misconceptions is part of the extreme discourse in Congress and among different constituencies. When we perceive the issues incorrectly and our elected officials do nothing to improve that perception?  What does that say about them?  No wonder we cannot get infrastructure to the top of our funding needs?  They perceive if you get water, can drive on it or flush it away, things must be fine?


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.

 


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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