Columbia, SC — FEW THINGS are more costly or corrosive than a leak.
If your water bill is unusually high and the meter is working fine, city water employees will tell you to call in a plumber; you just might have a leak.
A leak, theyll tell you, could not only cause you to lose water and money via your monthly bill but, if not repaired, could cause major damage to your home. Left unattended, leaks can cause mold and mildew, creating a hazardous environment.
If only Columbia officials would realize that a financial leak can be corrosive as well. City officials punched a hole in the water and sewer fund years ago, allowing money to leak into the general fund year after year.
Today the water and sewer system generates tens of millions of dollars that could and should be used to maintain and improve the utilities. But much of it is not, so the system is rickety and worn and badly in need of repair.
Many pipes are half a century old or more. And federal regulators are leaning on the city to improve the system because of sewage spills and its generally poor condition. In the past two decades, tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage have spilled into neighborhoods and rivers.
The city has devised a plan to begin making hundreds of millions of dollars in needed improvements. It calls for increases in water and sewer rates over a five-year period, beginning back in July. But after some customers complained that their rates are far too high, City Council is now trying to find a way to ease the burden.
Just one problem: The city cant afford to reduce the rates but so much if at all if it is going to make the improvements that the Environmental Protection Agency demands and this community needs.
So City Council is scrambling to find a way to cut rates for large-volume users hit hard by the increases without having to dial back on planned upgrades.
I dont know at what level the city should set customer rates. But I am sure that, although none of us wants to pay more, Columbia must increase the rates to a level that generates enough money to get this work done. And while its important to please the EPA, which is expected to hit the city with a hefty fine sometime soon, its more important for Columbia to upgrade the system so it can provide quality, uninterrupted service to its customers. Additionally, it must be a quality system that can be sold as reliable to businesses and industry considering relocating in our community.
That said, as City Council examines its rates, it should set them at a level that is fair and equitable. While some bills increased by just a few percentage points per month, others rose 28 times higher. Large-volume customers were hit hardest.
City staff have presented the council with six options for possible rate adjustments. None comes without consequences. Reduce the rates, and you reduce the revenue needed to improve the utilities.
There has been a suggestion that perhaps the council should not reduce anyones water and sewer rates. But if its clear some are out of whack and it is doing nothing shouldnt be an option.
There is another way, although not painless.
Stop the leak. The fact is that the city has had a leak, albeit an intentional one, in its water and sewer fund for decades now, and it finally has come to the point where it cant afford not to fix it.
While it might not be the sole reason for the disrepair, this leak has added significantly to its erosion.
Every year, the council has transferred millions of dollars from the utilities fund into the general fund. The more city officials transferred, the less they had to maintain and improve the decaying system.
Like a leaky pipe in a family house, the financial drip-drip-drip out of the citys utility fund has taken its toll. The aged system became dilapidated and now requires expensive but critical repairs. While rate increases might have been needed no matter what, the need wouldnt be so great if City Council had used that money to maintain and improve the system.
As the council tries to come up with a way to give customers a deserved reduction in rates while still meeting its obligations to the water and sewer system, it must end the annual transfers.
The city siphons off about $4.5 million annually to pay for things such as police officers salaries, garbage pickup and fire station operations. Since 1999, the council has transferred more than $80 million.
While this current council hasnt continued the unconscionable practice of also using the money for every pet project and community request that arises, it also has not committed to stopping the leak.
Just as it has made the tough but responsible decision to charge employees for their health insurance and other such matters to ensure the citys fiscal health, it is now time to look out for the fiscal and physical health of the water and sewer fund. The city can no longer afford to balance the general fund budget on the backs of water and sewer customers.
Im well aware that the city cant take a $4.5 million hit at once; that would require too big a tax increase or too large a budget cut. But city officials must agree to give up, I dont know, $1 million or so now to help ease the burden on customers, protect the integrity of the utilities and gradually wean itself off water and sewer money over the next few years. This may not be the lone answer, but it should be part of the equation.
Columbia officials wont like this idea; they never have. They insist that city taxpayers own the utilities and deserve to benefit from their operation. But that only makes sense if the system city officials look at as a cash cow is adequately updated and maintained. It is not.
And one reason it isnt is that hole City Council punched in the fund years ago. Despite the significant damage it has done, officials have so far refused to plug it. And so, it leaks.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.