Thursday, August 30, 2012

The MWRA and Misdirected Frustration

MWRA -- four letters that engender anger and frustration in Massachusetts residents in the greater Boston area. There is even a staccato delivery and disgusted tone with which the letters are customarily uttered.  Many people know no more about it than that it causes us to pay some of the highest water and sewer rates in the country.  The Authority must be the cause of these rates, many assume.  They are making a mess of a service that should cost less.

However it is a literal mess that caused our current problem.  For half a century communities in the Boston area dumped their sewage directly into Boston Harbor.  As with so many issues in this country, lower short term costs were chosen over higher long term costs.  We see the same phenomenon with our nation’s infrastructure and its energy policy (fossil fuels are cheaper than alternatives, as long as you don’t calculate the immense cost to our healthcare system, the premature deaths of thousands, and the incalculable impacts of climate change).
The Federal Clean Water Act and other legislation forced us to clean up the Harbor and build a massive system of waste water treatment. In the 25+ years of its existence, the MWRA has overseen billions of dollars in capital expenditures in this effort, and the effort continues.
A couple of weeks ago, Channel 4’s I-Team aired a segment about wage increases at the MWRA, and Milton’s Paul Yovino was featured.  Milton has one of the largest increases in the system and Mr. Yovino  has been an active critic of the Authority.  Frank Schroth covered the I-Team story on MyTownMatters and Yovino posted a comment angrily attacking the raises, disparaging the MWRA, the Advisory Board to the MWRA (on which Milton resident Kathy Dunphy serves as its Chair), and trafficking in a rumor that the Executive Director was receiving a $60,000 raise.  Joseph Favaloro, the Executive Director of the Advisory Board addressed many of the errors of fact. You can see the comments here:
Most disappointing about Yovino’s complaint is his focus on the wage increases for the roughly 1200 MRWA employees.  He directs his frustration with the high cost of water and sewer on those people who perform very important work. But their wage increases are not the reason our bills are so high.  Yovino finds the $3.8 million allocated to raises “outrageous” particularly since “…private industry is not giving its employees any wage or salary increases…”.
This notion that the private sector has not been giving raises since the Great Recession began is simply not true.  Let’s look at the percentage raises given to MWRA workers and private sector employees in the Boston area (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12 months ending March), for the years 2009-2012.
                                                MWRA Wage Increases--------Private Sector Wage Increases
Not only is the MWRA wage increase not outrageous, its cost is not a major factor in the increase in Milton rates.
While Mr. Yovino’s criticisms are wrong factually, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem with water rates.  A problem that may get much worse.  The link that follows takes you to the MWRA website where you can download a pdf of the FY 13 budget. On page 9 you’ll see a chart that should cause great concern.  It depicts historical and projected rate increases for the MWRA system as a whole.  This year’s increase is 3.9%, last year’s was 3.5% and the year before was 1.5%. Projecting out to 2022, which happens to be the year when MWRA debt peaks, we see much larger increases.  In Fiscal Years ’15, ’17, and ’19 the increases are in excess of 8%, all larger than any increase in the preceding 19 years.  Milton’s experience has been larger increases than the MWRA as a whole, sometimes significantly larger.
Increases of this magnitude on top of the rates we pay today represent serious money.  Some of these increases may be mitigated by state action, or by the planned release of “MWRA reserves” in 2016, but whether or how much remains to be seen.
There are three areas of potential focus to try to control these costs – the MWRA itself, individual homeowner usage, and the Town’s overall water and sewer system.  
I’m convinced that the MWRA has done a very effective job controlling its costs, due in large part to the work of the Advisory Board.  The most important initiative the authority could undertake is to expand the MWRA service to more communities, thus spreading large fixed costs over a larger number of users.
But what about here in Milton?  It’s difficult to find a comprehensive document outlining what plans we are pursuing, or could be pursuing, to lessen the long term impact of increased water and sewer rates. There is a 10 year Master Sewer Plan which I understand we are well into. What about the next ten years? What is the current fact base for our underground water system? What additional efforts could we make? How much would it cost? What would the payback be? What sources of funding could we tap? What should we be asking the State to do?  How much more could residents do, with education, to keep their bills lower?  The questions go on and on.
For many decades the subject of water and sewer service by local governments received little attention because the cost was negligible. This has changed in the past couple of decades. Increasingly residents are going to look to their local officials for an understanding of the issues and to help propose and lobby for solutions.  We can start in Milton by developing a strategic plan that gives us a comprehensive picture of our situation and allows us to develop tactics that will lessen the increased burden of water and sewer costs that is in our future.