I’m glad to see that the city is taking the issue of flooding and drainage seriously, as this is an increasingly urgent problem. It’s really one of infrastructure, which like everything else in this world eventually wears out and needs to be replaced. But as we know these things cost money, and some people don’t want to spend any.
The Department of Public Works and Engineering has estimated that the price tag on infrastructure improvements needed to control flooding in the next 20 years is in the neighborhood of $4 billion. Others say it is closer to $10 billion. Even spread over decades, that kind of money is not available amid sprawling budget problems that include unfunded pension liabilities, and a financially strapped Combined Utility System.
Beyond the high cost and policy ramifications, political pitfalls abound. Chief among them is a campaign that could be led by some of the very engineers who could benefit the most from the infrastructure boom a referendum would initiate.Other question marks include whether the proposal could be crowded out by another ballot proposition, or how voters would respond to what would almost certainly be a major tax increase.
“What a shock that an engineer or contractor would support a referendum for a bunch of infrastructure projects,” joked former City Councilman Bruce Tatro, a leading voice against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration.
Tatro said the central issue is not whether a bond referendum would be used to pay for infrastructure projects, but whether that referendum would lead to a tax increase.
“I think in this atmosphere, people would be very apprehensive to approve any amount of bond-letting that would require a tax increase,” he said.
Tatro’s non-responsive joke about engineers annoys me more than it should. He’s not claiming they’re wrong in their assessment, just that (heaven forfend!) some of them may stand to benefit from that assessment. Either this is in the public interest or it isn’t. If it is, then any self-interest on the part of the engineering community is a secondary concern. It’s still up to us to decide if this is something we want the city to do.
As for the concern that folks might not want to authorize bonds to deal with these problems because they might mean higher taxes, well, maybe, but what purpose does that kind of speculation serve? This won’t happen without a referendum, where people can express any reluctance they may have in the most direct manner possible, and before that there will plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Does Tatro, or anyone else, have a substantive criticism on the merits of the idea, or is this how it’s going to be? There are many things we need to be clear about. What, if anything, do we really need to be doing right now? What are the risks of doing nothing? What is the best way to pay for what we want to do? How do we prioritize our to-do list? The story does talk about some of the costs and hazards of the current situation, but we’re just scratching the surface right now. How people may feel about these things will depend to a large extent on how well they understand what needs to be done and why. Let’s please get on with that.