To pay for a Wichita water supply, there are alternatives

Supporters of a proposed Wichita sales tax contend there is only one alternative for paying for a new water supply, and it is presented as unwise.

The major component of the proposed Wichita one cent per dollar sales tax is to pay for a new water supply. Controversy surrounds how the water should be supplied (ASR? El Dorado? New reservoir?) and its urgency. But according to sales tax boosters, there is no controversy about how to pay for a new water supply.

"Yes Wichita" campaign material. Click for larger version.
“Yes Wichita” campaign material. Click for larger version.
The City of Wichita and the “Yes Wichita” group present two alternatives to Wichita voters: Either (a) approve a sales tax to pay for a new water supply, or (b) the city will borrow to pay for the water supply and water users will pay a lot of interest. Campaign material from “Yes Wichita” states that without a sales tax, “we end up paying 50% more over 25 years because of financing costs.”

Are there other alternatives? Here’s one: If the water supply project costs $250 million, let’s raise water bills by that amount over five years. In this way, water users pay for the new water supply, and we avoid the long-term debt that city council members and “Yes Wichita” seem determined to avoid.

It's best to have those who use something pay for it directly.
It’s best to have those who use something pay for it directly.
Water bills would have to rise by quite a bit in order to raise $50 million per year. But it’s important to have water users pay for water. Also, Wichitans need to be aware — acutely aware — of the costs of a new water supply. Many citizens are surprised to learn that the city has spent $247 million over the past decade on a water project, the ASR program. That money was mostly borrowed, much of it by the same mayor, council members, and city hall bureaucrats that now shun long-term debt.

It will be easier to let people know how much a new water supply costs and how it affects them personally when its cost appears on their water bills. The money that is collected through water bills can be placed in a dedicated fund instead of flowing to the city’s general fund. Then, after the necessary amount is raised, water bills can be immediately adjusted downwards. That’s more difficult to do with a sales tax.

If we pay for a new water supply through a general retail sales tax, the linkage between cost and benefit is less obvious. There is less transparency, and ultimately, less accountability.

Sales tax supporters like “Yes Wichita” claim that one-third of the sales tax collected in Wichita is paid by non-Wichitans. It’s smart, they say, to have visitors to Wichita pay for a portion of the costs of a new water supply. But don’t retail stores pass along their costs — including water bills — to their customers?

Consider this: What is probably the most expensive item sold on a routine basis by a Wichita water utility customer? A good guess would be a Boeing 737 fuselage manufactured by Spirit Aerosystems and sold to Boeing. This item isn’t subject to sales tax. But Spirit can pass along higher water bills to Boeing. (This assumes that shifting costs to outsiders is desirable. I’m not convinced it is.)

According to the Wichita budget, the Wichita water utility provides water to 425,000 customers. As the population of Wichita is about 385,000, there are some 40,000 Wichita water utility customers outside the city. How best to have them help pay for a new water supply: Through their water bills, or hoping that residents of Derby drive past their local Wal-Mart and Target stores to shop at identical stores in Wichita so they can pay sales tax to the city?

There are alternatives for paying for a new water supply other than a sales tax and long-term debt. As has been illustrated by sales tax opponents, water is important, but the need for a new water supply is not as urgent as sales tax supporters portray. There is time to consider other alternatives.

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