Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Capital Idea (updated)

I felt sorry for the City Council yesterday. They have been hearing about infrastructure problems for the last few months. Yesterday they saw the final sticker price. They ended up with a bad case of sticker shock. They are searching for additional ways to pay the bill, but in the end local water users will suffer from sticker shock sometime this spring.

Our infrastructure problems are nothing new. They are a result of past policies of neglect, political pandering, and a policy of ignoring capital problems until they became serious. They ignored infrastructure problems because they could do it so easily. There was nothing that required them to look at capital problems.

It's interesting that this is happening at the same time they are forming a charter review committee. I am on this committee and have been doing some research. I looked at reports such as this one about what is happening in city charters in Texas. I noticed that there is something interesting included in many charters, especially the newer ones: a capital budget. (Our charter is here.)

We are not the only city that is having infrastructure problems. The upkeep on basic capital assets is not something that gets a lot of attention until something breaks. Flashy projects like arenas or tennis courts are much more appealing and have a higher visibility. Everyone likes to talk about the great stereo and seats in a new car. Nobody talks about what it takes to change the oil or check the brakes. Basic maintenance isn't sexy but it has to be done. There has to be some way to make sure that basic maintenance is done.

What I see happening is many cities are building a requirement for capital improvements into the city charter. They are spelling out that each annual city budget must include a capital budget. They are requiring a capital improvement plan, often as a section of an overall comprehensive plan, and they are requiring that capital projects be looked at as part of the overall budget process and that a separate periodic review be held, with every 2 years being common.

As part of our charter review, we need to add a capital improvement improvement plan along the lines I just described, and put it before the voters. We need to ensure that no future city government can ignore the city's basic capital and infrastructure needs.


  1. Your article is pretty much right on target. There was something that required the City Council to look at captial problems. It's called "stewardship."
    I quickly scanned city charters (newer ones) and found that the Police Dept. comes under the city manager. Don't like that. I support an elected police chief. Also, there are provisions there for Initiative & Referendum (I & R). That's bad. I & R effectively bypasses the people you have elected. When the council members pass bad ordinances, vote them out of office. That's what elections are for. I & R is what they have in California, and, if that is what you like, that's where you need to be. Tony Massaro

  2. The newer charter (from Kyle) is an example. Not everything in there is suitable for us.

    Look at our current charter. We already have I&R in it and that is not likely to change.

    Remember, we are not replacing our current charter. We are going to update it to meet our needs.

  3. Anon, JWT is correct, San Angelo has a form of I&R, though it is difficult to get the signatures to make it happen. That bar is raised higher by an unintended (I think) consequence of motor voter and other registration efforts. We now have about 85% of eligible voters registered, but an unknowable portion of them simply filled out the card they got when they applied for a driver's license, library card, benefit, whatever. Maybe they thought it was required, for sure from the rates on election day, few of them had any intention to actually vote.

    The last successful I&R was in-town liquor, which effort cost almost $15 per "yes" vote, mostly in paid signature collecters. I&R may be useful in forcing a governing body to take up an issue they would as soon leave be, but I dislike it for most things. There is no room for compromise, what's on top of the signatures is what gets on the ballot, warts and all.