(I never posted this story, from years ago.) A few days ago, as I sat down to lunch, my good friend asked me a question: "When is my sewer bill going to stop going up, year after year?"
The same question was asked of me a few weeks back. And a few weeks before that also, nearly always by someone I know well, someone who is smart and usually on top of things.
Last night in Spanish class, after I read a piece I had written about my time as mayor in Bisbee, a time when I became an expert on Bisbee sewer system and the many hoops we had to jump through to get the $34 million we needed to overhaul the system, my Spanish teacher, a really wonderful teacher and a very smart man in all things, asked me a question:
"Why is my sewer bill going up, year after year?"
Because he asked me this question out of the blue, and because my Spanish hearing skills are still pretty lousy (in part due to my wearing two hearing aids) it took me a while to understand what he was asking. But when I finally understood, I smiled and said, "That is the question that I am often asked."
That I am asked this question truly interests me. Most people in Bisbee, and all the people who have asked me this question, know that I spent four years of my life struggling, with many others, to finalize the complex arrangements needed to satisfy the lending and the granting agencies, as well as the regulatory authorities (state and federal), so that we could receive the grant and loan money and proceed with actually doing the work.
On the last day I was in office, the shovels of Bozeman, Montana contractors, Barnard and Company, were put in the ground and the project was largely completed one year after I left office.
Of the many jobs that I have held, obtaining the funding to finance the overhaul of Bisbee's decrepit sewer system heads the list. It's very rare in working life to work on something that big and see it nearly all the way through.
What is more, the whole town was part of the entire process. Not long after I came into office, we held an historic special election in which the voters were asked to approve the authority to borrow money to complete the project. The approval level was almost 95 percent. It might even be a state record.
So back to my question: Given all of the fuss, all of the hubbub and uproar about our failing sewer system, you would think that most people in town know that we borrowed a lot of money to fix our system---at very favorable rates, and that we have to pay it back.
The reason our sewer bill goes up, and the reason it is no longer what it was, say, 10 years ago, is straightforward. Our sewer bills 10 years ago were very low because we had put off (with a few exceptions) repairing and overhauling our system for decades.
In fact, we were told in 1970 that the system needed a complete overhaul and a project proposal was put forward at very favorable rates, and the voters rejected the proposal out of hand. During the time in which the federal government was actually giving away money to repair sewer systems, we never bothered to apply.
In truth, that smart people don't know why our sewer bills went up, and will continue to go up, for the years ahead, astounds me.
I think the reason that the question comes up is that for many in Bisbee, the fact that we "fixed" the sewer system means that the problem went away and that we can return to our normal path of low sewer bills creeping up slowly.
The Tooth Fairy did not lend us the money for our sewer project; the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of the State of Arizona the did, using money that comes from the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.as well as the Rural Development Authority of the Department of Agriculture and North American Development Banks (also using EPA money).
And we have to pay it back, on a schedule of rates that rise faster or slower depending on whether or not our city grows and whether those within city limits pay their bills or are hooked up to our system and disconnected from existing septic systems. Like everything else, sewer projects are deeply tied to how governments work and governments don't work for free.
I mention this story because it somehow depresses me to learn that smart people are still confused about something for which there should be an abundance of information. And I am also depressed that if we think the Bisbee sewer project is hard to understand, think of health care reform. No wonder, when the right-wing yells "socialized medicine" and "keep the government's hands off Medicare," no one should really be surprised that there are millions out there listening.