Is re­vers­ing a re­lied-upon trans­fer of city funds the way to fix the city’s lead pipe prob­lem?

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY MATT HRODEY

The city’s slush fund.

THIS YEAR, about $13 mil­lion is ex­pected to flow from the cof­fers of the Mil­wau­kee Wa­ter Works and into the city’s gen­eral fund, where it can be spent on any­thing from fix­ing fire en­gines to filling pot­holes. De­pend­ing on who you ask, this pay­ment is ei­ther a back­door means for prop­ping up city fi­nances – at a time when the money could be used to re­place dan­ger­ous lead wa­ter pipes – or a rou­tine, ir­re­place­able part of city fi­nances. The amount is about 10 per­cent of all funds re­ceived by the wa­ter works, which gets most of its rev­enue from res­i­den­tial wa­ter bills.

Mil­wau­kee isn’t the only city to turn its wa­ter util­ity into a cash cow. Nearly all mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in Wis­con­sin that op­er­ate a wa­ter util­ity make a sim­i­lar “pay­ment in lieu of taxes,” as de­fined un­der state law, ac­cord­ing to Mark Ni­col­ini, the city’s bud­get direc­tor. (A city anal­y­sis ranks our pay­ment as slightly be­low av­er­age for the state.) He says it would take an act of the Com­mon Coun­cil for the Wa­ter Works to hang onto the money and spend it on re­plac­ing some of the 70,000 re­main­ing lead lat­eral lines in the city, pipes that are be­lieved to play a role in poi­son­ing an un­known num­ber of chil­dren and adults.

Robert Mi­randa, an ac­tivist and leader of the group Fresh­wa­ter for Life Ac­tion Coali­tion, has ar­gued for a sim­i­lar course of ac­tion and be­lieves the city should be spend­ing $20-25 mil­lion a year on re­plac­ing lines. “At least then we’re re­duc­ing the num­ber and re­duc­ing the harm,” he says. Mayor Tom Bar­rett’s 2017 city bud­get in­cludes about $3.6 mil­lion to make some 600 high-risk re­place­ments, and Ni­col­ini says the city will look into ap­ply­ing for a wa­ter rate in­crease later in the year, through the state Pub­lic Ser­vice Commission, in part to gen­er­ate more money for lead lat­er­als. He es­ti­mates the new rate bump, which has yet to be de­ter­mined, would al­low the city to re­place many more lines each year with­out sub­tract­ing from other pro­grams, as would hap­pen with re­vers­ing the $13 mil­lion. “You’d be talk­ing emer­gency ser­vices and li­braries,” he says. “Thir­teen mil­lion would not be a tri­fling amount.”

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