Saturday, December 15, 2007

Carrying Water for Big Business?

HDR Engineering, yet another out-of-state consulting firm, will get paid $107,789 by Fayetteville taxpayers to give advice to our elected officials on how much to raise our water and sewer rates. Under one scheme, they will have the average residential customer's monthly rates go up from $46.60 this year to at least $56.48 in the next four years.

There are major policy issues besides how much additional revenue is needed for operation of our water and sewer system, and those decisions cannot be delegated to a bunch of consultants or city employees. Our elected officials must make those decisions. Mayor Coody seems disengaged from the process, and in the absence of executive leadership, the task falls to the city council.

The first decision is about what constitutes a fair rate structure. Alderman Lioneld Jordan supports a flat rate plan where all customers will pay the same cost per gallon for water and sewer used. Alderman Bobby Ferrell wants residential customers to pay higher rates to subsidize lower rates for large industrial users and commercial businesses. Alderman Kyle Cook, Chair of the Water and Sewer Committee, is advocating an approach that varies rates based on "cost of service" to each customer, and this seems like the consensus view on the council. No one has advocated a progressive rate structure that would encourage conservation and hold down costs for additional construction by graduated increasing rates as more water is consumed.

Alderman Jordan has also taken the lead in arguing for "lifeline" reduced rates for elderly residents living on fixed income such as Social Security. This is a good idea and the right thing to do, and the lower rates could be supported by a small increase for all other classes of users. The city staff and the hired consultants are trying to dump this all on residential customers, but it should be shared by commercial and industrial users as well.

On both issues, Alderman Jordan is championing the cause of residential customers, especially the elderly and moderate income working families. Alderman Ferrell is the Chamber's in-house lobbyist on the council urging corporate welfare for businesses and the large corporate industrial interests of Tyson Foods, Pinnacle Foods, and Superior Industries that use millions of gallons a day. In that, he is supported by the compliant corporate media. The final rate structure adopted by the City Council will reveal much about the city's priorities and whether the power lies with average citizens or the Chamber crowd.

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