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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 2 months ago

Our View: What's the strategy?

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Add up all the projects the city talks about, and the total would top $600 million. Is there really a plan or strategy for all this?
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

The Sarasota City Commission recently approved a plan calling for 11 consecutive years of increases in city residents’ water and sewer bills. 

Matt Walsh

Commissioners authorized raising utility rates 3.5% annually to cover $377 million that would be used to pay for infrastructure improvements to the city’s aging water and sewer systems.

This was a stunning figure. It came to light after the city’s new utilities director, Bill Riebe, completed a study of the city’s existing systems. Before joining the city, Riebe, an engineer and general contractor, served as utilities director for the Village of Wellington in Palm Beach County and North Augusta, S.C., and as vice president of an engineering firm.

What Riebe found was a water and sewer system that he would grade as a C to C-, nowhere close to some of the decrepit systems in the Northeast. 

But as the top chart shows, the city’s systems are old enough that Riebe says: “We need to start (retrofitting and updating) now; otherwise there are going to be problems.”

Nothing particularly shocked Riebe in his research. There is more asbestos in the city’s pipes than he expected; there’s more water infiltration into the sanitary sewer pipes than he expected; and the water smells worse than it should. 

All of which he’s addressing. 

“I would not say the systems have been neglected,” he said. “It’s just time.”

And it’s going to be costly — like replacing your roof or renovating the interior of your 40-year-old house.

As the top chart shows, city residents will be paying for this infrastructure upgrade for the next decade. The second chart shows the cost of improvements to each system. The $377 million comes from the $298.5 million in new projects and $78.5 million already in the works. 

And just to give you some perspective on the size of that $377 million, that’s 5.5 times the city’s annual operating budget.

Some might say the water and sewer upgrades are just the cost of doing business. But you might also put that $377 million in the context of other city issues requiring taxpayer funding — The Bay ($20 million to $200 million), Bobby Jones Golf Club (who knows what that will be!), the city’s new taxing district to upgrade its parks (up to $50 million?). And let’s not forget the cloud of unfunded pension liabilities that constantly hovers over taxpayers. In the city’s most recent comprehensive annual financial report, it showed unfunded pension and health-insurance liabilities at $134 million. Taxpayers will have to pay that at some point. 

And once again, City Manager Tom Barwin warned in his annual budget message about how much money the city is having to pay each year to fund the city’s contributions to the police pensions: “[The current pension system will require payments into the system at an astounding 50.92% of the Sarasota Police Department’s payroll.” Total contributions to all pension plans will be $13.38 million, 19.7% of the general fund.

It’s enough to make you wonder: Why is the city administration so concerned about climate change, walkability, expanded bike lanes, narrowing portions of Fruitville Road and banning plastic straws on city property when there are hundreds of millions of dollars in projects for which taxpayers have no idea how much they’ll have to pay?

Maybe it’s just us. But what’s the strategy here?   

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