Friday, December 22, 2006

Water they up to

The water main break is the big story in town right now, and for good reason. Water is essential to the citizens and businesses of San Angelo. Basic maintenance shouldn't have been ignored for as long as it was. That is not acceptable.

Before we break out the torches and pitch forks and go after the city council, lets take a deep breath and look at some basic facts. Our current city council is relatively new. Three of the members just took office this year (although Mr. Cardenas had been on council 10 years ago.) The majority of the council has less than 2 years in office. Only Mr. Cardenas has more than 4 years experiance on the council, and much of his is not recent.

The current council has not ignored maintenance issues. They finally stopped treating water as little more than a revenue source when they eliminated the PILOT transfer of money from the water fund to the general fund, and started looking at water as a fundamental service. They directed staff to come up with a plan on maintenance and improvements to infrastructure. They specifically asked about using the current 1/2 cent sales tax to fix some of these problems. They have been trying to fix a problem that was left for them by previous councils and city managers.

There has been some interesting timing for these water line problems. The Honey Creek fire happened just before the council had a 2 day workshop. When tough questions were asked about why the hydrants weren't working in the honey creek area, it was pointed out that a previous council had eliminated the hydrant and valve inspection and maintenance team in the water department to "save money." Other "savings" such as eliminating some road and bridge maintenance capabilities were also mentioned. Council put money into the budget for the hydrant and valve maintenance program, allocated a much higher amount of money to maintenance, and directed staff to come back with more information and to develop a plan of attack including priorities.

Money was allocated to fix the mains in the current budget. They were planning for when and where to start when the mains made that decision for them. A capital improvement plan outline was presented to the council last Tuesday. This presentation had been scheduled long before the main broke. It added emphasis to the presentation, but didn't change the core of it. The picture presented was not good. The false economy of putting off maintenance by previous councils and management is going to cost the city millions of dollars to fix. The current council is at least addressing the issue head on.

One question that keeps coming up is "why don't they use 1/2 cent sales tax money to fix some of this?" Short answer is that by law they can't. Type 4B economic development sales taxes can't be used for capital and infrastructure unless it is an improvement that will help promote or expand business, or is tied to another 4B project. Check here for more information. The ballot language voters approved for our local 4B tax further limits how that money can be spent.

There are alternative sales taxes available to cities. They can adopt a sales tax that is dedicated to road and bridge projects. They can also adopt a sales tax to reduce property taxes. Any of these options would have to be voted on by the citizens of San Angelo. It is probably time to look at these options. Lets see if the council will bring this before the voters.

The council and city staff have a lot of work to do. They have a problem to fix that is left over from their predecessors. Let's give them a chance to do a long term fix. The infrastructure didn't get this bad in 2 years, it won't get fixed in 2 years. Let's also remind the other local government bodies, like the school board, that maintenance must be a priority. And let's not forget to thank previous mayors and council members for the fine shape they left the city in.

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