WHILE THE DOWN economy has exacted a significant toll on everyone, including governments, the city of Columbia has found a silver lining and is wisely taking advantage of it.
Although it wasn't scheduled to borrow more money for water and sewage improvements until June, City Council - nudged by Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who has been the council's point man on budget matters as it has struggled to improve the city's finances - voted to borrow another $105 million now because of a favorable construction environment. Many contractors are looking for work - at very good prices.
The city learned earlier this year that it could get good deals when it received bids for a project to install new water pipes in Northeast Richland. Not only did twice the number of contractors as usual bid on the project, but their costs were far below what the city anticipated. Columbia had expected to spend $5 million, but the low bid was 40 percent below that, at $3 million.
In some instances, we would discourage governments from making large expenditures or taking on a large amount of new debt. Take, for example, some City Council members' attempt to borrow tens of millions of dollars for special projects in North Columbia and USC's research campus. Some on City Council have been adamant about creating two ill-timed special tax districts that would siphon off money for needed services, including schools and fire and police personnel. It's inconceivable that the city would consider diverting tax dollars for special projects in the midst of a recession, when essential services have been cut. While we understand the need to support Innovista and to help turn around the fortunes of long-neglected North Columbia, the city simply can't afford it right now.
During discussions about the special tax districts, it was suggested that Columbia might have to use its water and sewer fund to help secure the loan for the special tax districts. That never was a good idea, but with the city deciding to go forward with more water and sewer improvements, that option should be completely off the table - along with the proposed TIFs.
The city's enterprise fund is well able to repay money borrowed for water and sewer improvements. The $105 million is to be spent to replace or repair several sewage pumps, install a 45-inch sewage pipe to help increase the capacity to the wastewater treatment plant and replace and repair several water and sewage pipes. Earlier this year, the city borrowed $80 million for two massive upgrades to the city's water and wastewater treatment plants.
This next round of improvements will pay off in a number of ways. The city's aging water and sewer systems will get much-needed upgrades and improvements at much better prices than normal. The improvements will help address some concerns of the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control about the city's water and sewer operations; regulators are understandably concerned about several water and sewage spills involving the city's systems. And council members have a good point when they call this a local stimulus package that will put contractors, architects and others to work.
The city is right to seize this moment to ensure it can continue to deliver the essential, basic services of water and sewer to its citizens and customers.