EDITORIAL: What’s on the village menu?

LISTEN UP CHATHAM GARDEN PLANTS, we gotta conserve. You and the lawn want water? Pray for rain. No more water from the tap. Too expensive. Go ask your cactus friends how to live with whatever falls from the sky.

The situation felt just that dire last week as a majority of the Chatham Village Board adopted the second rate hike in as many years on water and sewer use fees. Some residents will now pay double what they did in 2016. For those of us who live in the village water and sewer district, the scale of the increase is hard to understand. These are essential services. It’s not as if there’s some ready substitute for a reliable source of clean water.

Some of our neighbors live on the economic margin. These increases may force them out of the village. If that happens, it will make the village population less diverse.

In retrospect you can see the warning signs. Both water and sewer services often racked up substantial deficits in recent years. As the board authorized overdue repairs, the debt service grew. And there were management problems. Mayor Tom Curran says that when he came into office in 2011 the village had $25,000 in unpaid sewer and water bills. The village has fewer delinquent bills now.

The board says in an eight-page report on the current situation and in public comments that the double whammy rate increases were necessary because when the board increased fees last year, revenues dropped. The revenues dropped because people used less water… because water cost more.

It’s tempting to accuse the board of being dopey for not anticipating the public reaction to the first price increase. But there’s a whole academic field of water management economics that looks at subjects like the elasticity of water prices and non-linear pricing, whatever that means. Predicting consumer behavior is tricky business.

Village voters didn’t elect any PhD economists to seats on the board and if any experts were consulted, the report doesn’t mention them. That could explain why the board members misjudged how much of an increase was needed to address the deficit. Now we have a new increase with no assurances that the new prices are based on data and analysis that works for small water and sewer systems like the ones in Chatham.

One suggestion made at last week’s Village Board meeting was to disband the village Police Department and apply the money we pay for the cops to infrastructure instead. But what happens if the rates continue to rise?

All ideas deserve a hearing but only as part of a strategy for how the village expects to pay for capital projects over the next five-to-seven years.

Not another plan!?! Alright, call it a fiscal projection tool. Even better, think of it as a menu, where the village can pick and choose from among projected costs and revenues, creating models and assessing their impact on taxpayers. And key to the success of this approach is identifying the sources for every estimate on the menu. This approach won’t eliminate bad judgment, but it could encourage this and future boards to use a more rigorous and defensible explanation of where public money is going.

Like every other municipality, the Village of Chatham has too many important projects and too little money to make them all happen. Often, what communities must do under these circumstances is impose austerity measures, like postponing some of the water system upgrades and to defer the costs. But Chatham officials argue against that approach, reminding the public that a state grant for 60% of the cost of the upgrade will disappear if the funds aren’t spent.

Are they crying wolf? Not if you look at the need. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates this state will require $38.7 billion over the next two decades to repair, replace and upgrade drinking water systems. Plenty of other communities would love to have the grants Chatham has.

Governments at all levels mishandle public money. They fail to prevent–or collude in–schemes that steal or squander government funds. That’s not what’s happened in Chatham. The problem here resulted from good intentions combined with wishful thinking.

The board needs to do more than apologize and move on. It needs to show voters what it has learned from its water/sewer fee mistakes and has instead embraced policies and procedures to prevent the same problem from happening again. It’s not only the infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt. It’s trust.

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