WHILE IT ISN’T surprising that Columbia City Council has balanced another budget on the backs of water and sewer customers, it is disappointing that it hasn’t begun an earnest discussion about ratcheting down the amount it siphons off from the utilities fund.
Not only does the $4.5 million in water and sewer revenue the city will divert into its general fund this fiscal year lighten customers’ wallets, but it robs the aged system of money needed to make critical repairs. Although city officials might argue that a series of rate increases will go a long way toward crucial water and sewer updates, the fact is that City Council hastened the system’s plunge into disrepair through its decades-long practice of redirecting dollars away from the fund to pay for unrelated and — many times — unnecessary things.
Since 1999, the council has transferred more than $80 million into the general fund to pay for things such as police officers’ salaries, garbage pickup and fire station operations. What’s more, the council has raided the account to pay for new pet projects and fund community organizations.
Meanwhile, improvements to water and sewer lines, many of which are more than 50 years old and need to be replaced, were put on hold — until now. The city plans hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements, which will be funded through a series of increases over a five-year period. Residential customers were hit with higher rates at the beginning of July. Water and sewer rate increases are expected to generate $12 million more than last fiscal year.
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The city has added incentive to update its utilities system: Federal regulators — rightly — have expressed concern about sewage spills and the poor condition of Columbia’s system. In the past two decades, tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage have spilled into neighborhoods and rivers.
But in as much as the city is forced to raise rates to improve the system and meet the approval of federal regulators, the council should reduce the amount it pirates from the fund, to lessen the blow to customers.
We don’t expect the city to stop the transfers cold turkey; that likely would result in a hefty tax increase or sharp reduction in services. Columbia should develop a plan to wean itself off these transfers over a reasonable period, perhaps two or three years.
Columbia officials long have argued that the water and sewer system is owned by city taxpayers, who deserve to benefit from its operation. They have opted to dip into the fund rather than increase taxes. We don’t object to spending some of the money on legitimate city operations. But that must not happen until after all water and sewer needs are addressed.
With the system so dilapidated, it is inexcusable to divert money elsewhere. City Council should plug this ill-advised, purposeful leakage and focus on improving the water and sewer system.