Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lake Whatcom: Is It Time to Consolidate Water & Sewer Services?

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." – Thomas Edison

I haven’t blogged in a few days, preferring instead to do a little reflection and thinking about some things that might make sense to consider now.

These elections have been interesting and have resulted in some changes, but also some sameness. That is probably not all bad, because when too much change happens at once it can as much a distraction as it can a good thing. There does need to be some institutional memory left to inform and condition new ideas that come forward.

When new ideas do come forward they must be assimilated into the fabric of what exists, recognizing there is a practical limit to what degree of change the public will tolerate and accept.

One idea has persisted recently as something whose time may have come to seriously consider. It has been considered before, but not with as much urgency or promise.

That idea is that it may be time to consolidate water and sewer services in the Lake Whatcom Watershed under a single administrative control.
Aside from the fact that is considered a basic good idea in Watershed Management 101, here are four or five things that are now under discussion which together make this idea propitious for serious discussion:

1. Every elected official and candidate for City or County office recognized Lake Whatcom as a top priority that should be dealt with sooner rather than later. Bellingham has elected a new Mayor and three new Council Members who are committed to making progress on this issue.

2. The County Executive & Interim City Mayor have proposed a new collaborative, joint management plan to be headed by those two primary jurisdictions, with more comprehensive stakeholder involvement.
Some version of such a plan is likely to be adopted.

3. The City of Bellingham is in the midst of adopting updated Comprehensive Plans for its Water & Sewer Utilities, which will include 20-year Capital Improvement projections as well as System Development Charges and Rate adjustments to meet anticipated needs.

4. The City of Bellingham is in the process of updating its Inter-local Agreement with the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District.

5. Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District is now considering the major expense of building a new Administrative Headquarters at considerable expense, currently estimated at $5 to $7 million.

Why not take a ‘time-out’ and think about how all of those things could be combined to produce a synergistic result that far exceeds continuing the status quo?

Then, we might also see how the following could also be achieved:

• Improved financial stability of the Water District by being absorbed into the City’s much larger system.

• Improved operation & maintenance of the Water District’s system, resulting in less risk of sewage spills into the Lake.

• Substantially lower Water & Sewer Rates to Water District customers, taking into account economies of scale and reduced utility rate mark-ups.

• Elimination of need for new Water District Administrative Headquarters building, saving $5 to $7 million in capital costs to be paid by its customers.

• Retention of Water District Staff with equal or better wages & benefits.

• Consolidates utility functions within one jurisdictional entity, thereby promoting efficiency and better use of manpower and financial resources.

• Adds to value of overall utility systems and enhances access to credit rating and probability for receiving matching State & Federal grant funds.

• Allows better long-term facilities planning, including emphasis on spill prevention.

• Obviates the need for Inter-local agreement.

• Enhances joint management plan’s efficacy.

There may be other advantages possible in addition to these.

Also, there may also be some drawbacks that are currently not obvious or anticipated which must be carefully considered.

Notwithstanding any difficulties, this idea ought to be investigated and pursued if it is deemed viable to the parties.

It certainly seems to have the real potential of becoming a true ‘win-win’ situation, but we won’t know unless we take the next step to find out.

There is no question that the City would retain a ‘duty to serve’, just as the Water District is now obligated to do.

But, the City might also have some other tools to work with to make sure all vested rights are served fairly and efficiently and with due regard to risks and costs.

It’s time we tried a more cost-efficient, safer approach that is more holistic in nature, don’t you think?

If the parties agree to exploring this concept, expert consulting assistance will most certainly be required.

We’ve got a lot to gain and nothing to lose, except the same problems experienced in the past.

And, if something like this can work with the Lake Whatcom Water & Sewer District, it’s possible we might want to explore a similar approach with Water District 7 as well.

Just a few thoughts on my way to re-retirement...

"..... leadership is all about making things happen that might not otherwise happen, and preventing things from happening that ordinarily might happen..... it is a process that helps people transform intentions into positive action, vision into reality." - Thomas A. Cronin