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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

 


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.


My last blog was a discussion about surpluses.  The State of Florida will have a $1.3 billion surplus this year and a host of politically expedient answers for where that money goes (tax cuts, pork projects, projects to help election results), but little mention of replenishing trust funds and reserves that were emptied to balance the budget amid tax cuts from 2010 – 2012.  But perhaps it is not the legislators or their constituents that we should blame for not understanding the need for reserves because the truth is that most people are not used to saving.  A recent article I read noted that 72 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and would have difficulty putting $2000 together if needed.  $2000 is not a lot of money these days – it won’t buy you a transmission for example or a new engine for your car.  It won’t cover first, last and a deposit on a rental.  And it won’t cover the down payment on a house or most cars.  There are people who do not receive enough income to achieve some degree of savings, but not 72% of us.  We have come to perceive that having little savings is normal, but it wasn’t always this way and it is not this way everywhere in the world.  Back in the day, American saved more than they do now.  The reason is not that they had more money (they didn’t) or that they had less to spend money on (as things cost more proportionately).  But it was that “rainy day” they all knew would come and when they would need money.  They had been through depressions, recession and losses of industries (remember those Concord coachmakers did not get a federal bailout in trying to compete with Henry Ford).  They knew that there would be times when they needed to rely on themselves to survive and savings was the key.

There are two major differences from the past.  The most important is the fact is that credit was a lot harder to come by back in the day, so you needed cash for those big purchases.  That has changed dramatically in 50 years.  Today we get advertisements for credit cards – in the mail, instant credit at stores, easy credit for cars, and in the early 2000s, no-money-down-no-income-verification loans on real estate.  The need to save evaporated.  The access to easy credit has eliminated much of the need to save for those big expenses.  We can borrow to acquire them.  If we have a job problem, we borrow against the house or life insurance policy.  These are good backstops that help us maintain our way of life.

At the same time as we are being extended opportunities to secure funds to spend, we are barraged by advertisements and flyers and pitches to spend that money on products and services, many of which we probably don’t need, but are “cool” to have.  We are encouraged to compete to have better “stuff” than the other guy, and make sure we have the newest technology.  We all do it.  Just look at all phones can do, while keeping in mind that the old Bell phone I bought in college still works regardless of the situation and still sounds good.  No cool ringtones however, nor photo capability.  All that means we spend less on “needs” and more on “stuff.” 

Given this backdrop it is no surprise the attitude of decision-makers in government toward revenues and expenses.  Re-education of the public is needed as opposed to rhetoric.  We need to move the public discussion away from the concept of a balanced budget being expenses equal revenues to the correct concept of revenues + reserve expenses = expenses plus savings.  At times you use reserves (and savings =0) while other times reserve expenses are 0, while savings are positive. When big expenses come, borrow, but recurring expenses should not be funded through borrowing (credit).  We should seek to avoid is the desire to cut taxes (akin to cutting our salaries) to bring the budget back into balance that if we run a surplus, or spend it on “stuff.”  Such a system leaves room for those lean times when revenues may fluctuate but expenses do not (or increase).  


As 2014 is only a month away, expect water and sewer infrastructure to become a major issue in Congress.  While Congress has failed to pass budgets on-time for many years, already there are discussions about the fate of federal share of SRF funds.  The President has recommended reduction in SRF funds of $472 million, although there is discussion of an infrastructure fund, while the House has recommended a 70% cut to the SRF program.  Clearly the House sees infrastructure funding as either unimportant (unlikely) or a local issue (more likely).  Past budgets have allocated over $1.4 billion, while the states put up a 20% match to the federal share.  A large cut in federal funds will reverberate through to local utilities, because many small and medium size utilities depend on SRF programs because they lack access to the bond market.  In addition, a delay in the budget passage due to Congressional wrangling affects the timing of SRF funds for states and utilities, potentially delaying infrastructure investments. 

This decrease in funding comes at a time when ASCE rates water and wastewater system condition as a D+ and estimates over $3 trillion in infrastructure investment will be needed by 2020.  USEPA notes that the condition of water and wastewater systems have reached a rehabilitation and replacement stage and that infrastructure funding for water and sewer should be increased by over $500 billion per year versus a decrease of similar amounts or more.  Case Equipment and author Dan McNichol have created a program titled “Dire Straits:  the Drive to Revive America’s Ailing Infrastructure” to educate local officials and the public about the issue with deteriorating infrastructure.  Keep in mind much of what has made the US a major economic force in the middle 20th century is the same infrastructure we are using today. Clearly there is technical momentum to indicate there is greater need to invest in infrastructure while the politicians move the other way.  The public, caught in the middle, hears the two sides and prefers less to pay on their bills, so sides with the politicians as opposed to the data. 

Local utilities need to join the fray as their ability to continue to provide high quality service.  We need to educate our customers on the condition of infrastructure serving them.  For example, the water main in front of my house is a 50 year old asbestos concrete pipe that has broken twice in the past 18 months. The neighborhood has suffered 5 of these breaks in the past 2 months, and the City Commission has delayed replacement of these lines for the last three years fearing reprisals from the public.  Oh and the road in front of my house is caving in next to where the leak was.  But little “marketing” by the City has occurred to show the public the problem.  It is no surprise then that the public does not recognize the concern until service is interrupted.  So far no plans to reinitiate the replacement in front of my house.  The Commission is too worried about rates.

Water and sewer utilities have been run like a business in most local governments for years  They are set up as enterprise funds and people pay for what they use.  Just like the private sector.  Where the process breaks down is when the price is limited while needs and expenses rise.  Utilities are relatively fixed in their operating costs and I have yet to find a utility with a host of excess: workers.  They simply do not operate in this manner.  Utilities need to engage the public in the infrastructure condition discourse, show them the problems, identify the funding needs, and gain public support to operate as any enterprise would – cover your costs and insure you keep the equipment (and pipes) maintained, replacing them when they are worn out.  Public health and our local economies depend on our service. Keep in mind this may become critical quickly given the House commentary.  For years the federal and state governments have suggested future funding may not be forthcoming at some point and that all infrastructure funding should be local.  That will be a major increase in local budgets, so if we are to raise the funds, we need to solicit ratepayer support.  Now!  


Communicating effectively in both written form and public speaking is critical for the success of the utility.  I have been reading several books on leadership and communication remains an ongoing issue throughout.  We see many schools trying to incorporate this into the engineering curriculum, but that leaves far too many outside the training “program.”  The problem is that many people think they communicate well, when in fact they do not.  Nothing is  more of a reality check than college students, too many of which write in “text message form” as opposed to real written words.  Presenting utility concepts and ideas to different audiences is an integral part of the profession and unfortunately the technical nature of many of our issues requires technical people to communicate concepts to non-technical audiences.  This s far more difficult than it appears, which is part of why the message may be lost.  .Knowing this fact, aspiring utility employees must become familiar with using visual aids and computer-based tools to convey the important design details, so that, the client, regulators, politicians, the public and even other engineers can envision what the final product will look like and evaluate their ability to successfully execute the project. 

We tell our students that technical communication for civil engineers is essential to the profession and is a prerequisite for a successful engineering career. It assists in conveying information, serves as a thought process tool, and is arguably just as essential as excellent analytical or computational skills. For some, writing well comes naturally, for others, it can be a struggle. The difference can be experience, confidence, and proper planning. Planning makes writing easier. A good place to start would be to make an outline of topics to adequately cover the necessary content and in the appropriate order that allows the reader to follow along in a logical fashion. Of course too many of them resist outlines and read very little.  

Reading and writing go hand in hand.  If you read a lot, you have a better chance of being a good writer than those o do not.  The saving grace of the vampire books, Hunger Games, Game of thrones and 50 Shades series is that someone is actually reading the books. That is a first step.  Of course the news is another matter.  History, of course no so much.  For utility folks, it is technical materials that must be read, digested and conveyed to the ratepayers.  People are naturally suspicious of those they cannot understand, a huge barrier for the industry to overcome. I remind our students than when the general public is asked what engineers do, more than half answer:  drive trains.  Wow.  the disconnect!

It is important to avoid overly long documents with too much technical detail, jargon or specialized terms, distractions and tangents.The consequences of poor communications clearly justify the amount of time and effort required to write well because, for example, the written word in a document is permanent; therefore, the bad impression left with the reader of sloppy work can be extremely damaging.  We need to engage the public in a positive way.  Communication needs to be a more robust goal for all of us than it currently is to engender that needed support.

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