Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The infrastructure chronicles -- Volume 2

Second in our our occasional series.

One of my most memorable moments in public service occurred in the Town of Weymouth, just south of Boston. I was running the local water and sewer authority, and we were making massive (multi-billion dollar) improvements to the region's wastewater treatment system. With little or no state or federal financial assistance, most of the cost of those investments was being borne by the ratepayers in the communities we served. We therefore had to increase water and sewer fees by double-digit rates every year. This was very unpopular, but very necessary to meet federal water quality standards in Boston Harbor, the depository of the wastewater from 43 eastern Massachusetts communities. The MWRA had been created by the state government to take on the politically unpleasant task of siting sewage treatment facilities and raising the rates to pay for them, after decades of neglect by the state government itself.

At a community meeting in Weymouth, a resident said, "Don't raise my water and sewer bills. Let the government pay for this."

There, in two sentences, portrays the problem faced by elected officials in financing and maintaining essential public infrastructure. We are seeing this played out here in Massachusetts, where costs have been laid by the state government on the local transit authority, but where the political pressure against fare increases is severe. Indeed, the Governor finds himself in a lose-lose situation, one that has resulted in the untimely firing of the previous MBTA general manager and may now serve to unseat the Secretary of Transportation and also may jeopardize the Governor's reelection chances.

It is for this reason that single-purpose public authorities have been created: To take the politically unpopular steps necessary to finance essential public services. Legislatures and governors have realized that they need some political distance, or cover, from siting decisions and rate increases. While there is always the danger of authorities becoming too removed and unaccountable, safeguards can be built in to protect against that.

An alternative danger, though, occurs when a Governor steps into the work of a public authority and starts to put his or her hands on the levers. It is very hard to pull back after doing so, and it is likely to turn out poorly for the state's chief executive.

Commentary along those lines was filed yesterday by Robert Ciolek, an experienced public administrator, on Blue Mass Group, our local political blog:

What is it about the political and managerial abilities of the Governor and his team in terms of dealing with independent public authorities?

The legislative essence of such entities is their very real "independence". They were specifically created to remove them from the clutter and infighting of state government in order to focus on their mission. Yes, the Governor generally appoints the Board of Directors and over a period of time effectively takes indirect control over their strategic mission, but Deval Patrick and his team seem to want to continually muddle in the day to day operations....

Fighting these unnecessary battles is counterproductive and meaningless....
It is perfectly appropriate to suggest broad goals for independent public authorities, and having a key senior staffer coordinate the relationship of the state administration with various independent entities makes sense. Further, placing knowledgeable and dedicated individuals on governing Boards will, over several years, give sitting Governors effective control. But these blatant back room coups d'etats and resultant coverups is not fooling the public and will come back to haunt the Governor in 2010.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting how different states all have their own brouhaha's. In Virginia, where I lived for 30 years until recently, the things that go on in Massachusetts would cause armed revolution. (:) However, our own chronic battle was that the state government was in Richmond, a VERY southern town, while the state's economic driver is in Northern Va., which never felt it was getting its proportionate share of services, mainly roads.
Our union of 50 states indeed provides some interesting examples of how, or how not, to govern.

Matt said...

I don't supposed you'd be interested in being the new GM at the T.

John Mc said...

Good column, but I can't get over the irony of the comment "a resident said, "Don't raise my water and sewer bills. Let the government pay for this.""

Amazing how people think government waves a magic wand and money appears. If Government pays for things, it comes our of your taxes, so it's your wallet either way...

REKording said...

There is no government money. It is our money.

The Commonwealth has a pretty good record with quasi-governmental authorities. Much as people hate the tolls, the Mass Pike was kept in excellent condition as an independent authority. The transition from MDC to MWRA, while often the butt of jokes, has made the Charles and Mystic Rivers and Boston Harbor cleaner and preserved the high quality of the MDC water system. Many people in Northeast are unaware of the foresight of 19th and early 20th century water projects that preserved and protected watersheds. In years ahead, the Clean Air and Water regulations of the late 20th century may be looked upon as the finest contribution of the baby boomer generation to infrastructure.

RE: Public Transportation. In Holland they have an expression that the Queen pays for half of every train fare. To expect a public transport system without making a similar commitment is ludicrous. We have a patchwork of state authorities and regulations, and the underfunded AMTRAK operation, while we continue to subsidize a Highway System that kills more than 400 thousand a year and pollutes our air.

By the way, John Mc, the magic wand is called "deficit spending" and "printing money", and we allow our federal government to do it. Thank heavens the states are somewhat more fiscally responsible.