As the City of Wichita asks for more tax money for infrastructure, Wichita voters need to be aware of the projected costs of the city’s deferred maintenance.
When the Wichita City Council voted to increase water rates in November 2013, meeting minutes reported these remarks from the city manager explaining that Wichita has not adequately maintained its infrastructure:
Bob Layton City Manager stated the Council told staff last year that they wanted staff to continue to look at operation efficiencies to reduce the operating costs, which they are doing. Stated the rate recommendation does reflect the three percent efficiency increase. Stated over the last several years 80% of those rate increases have gone to infrastructure improvements and a lot of it is because of deferred maintenance that occurred over a long period of time. Stated they recognize even with these increases that it will difficult to keep up with the maintenance requirements of our system but are also aware of concerns residents have about significant rate increases.
This was not the first time, nor the last time, that Wichitans might have heard about problems with deferred maintenance of city infrastructure. In his 2013 State of the City address Mayor Carl Brewer told the city that over the next 30 years, “Wichita’s aging water, sewer, and storm drainage systems will require significant maintenance or replacement. Total replacement of these systems is estimated to cost $2.1 BILLION.” (emphasis in original)
Earlier this year a report presented to the Community Investments Plan Steering Committee held language like “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure maintenance … 38% of Wichita’s infrastructure is in ‘deficient/fair’ condition.”
The report also told the committee that the “cost to bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards” is given as an additional $45 to $55 million per year.
It’s important to note that these costs are not for building new infrastructure. Also, these costs are not for routine, ongoing maintenance. Instead, these numbers are what it costs to catch up with what the city should have been doing. As the report says: To bring existing deficient infrastructure up to standards.
This is important for Wichita voters to know as they consider their decision on a proposed one cent per dollar sales tax that will appear on the November ballot. Almost two-thirds of the tax proceeds would be spent on water.
But it’s important to note that the purpose of the $250 million allocated for water is not for catching up on the maintenance backlog. Instead, it’s earmarked for building additional water supply capability.
Whether the sales tax passes or not, the deferred maintenance needs of our existing infrastructure will remain. There will be pressure for water rates to rise, or for some other source of revenue to catch up on maintenance.
It won’t do us much good to have a new water source (the purpose of which is to allow for the watering of lawns and washing of cars during droughts) if the water pipes are broken. Perhaps Wichita voters should ask that the city present a plan for maintaining the assets we have before sending more tax dollars to city hall.
And let’s also ask this: Why hasn’t the city maintained the infrastructure that taxpayers and water users have already paid for?