Can You Spare A Few Billion For A Toilet Flush?

One of my monikers at work is “Mr. Sewer.”  That’s because before I came to my current job I spent 10 years administering federally funded grants to local governments for sewer projects.

It was in that job that I learned just how expensive it is to flush a toilet.  Most folks wouldn’t know that because local politicians like to keep sewer rates low for the obvious reason: when the shit hits the fan, they will likely be long gone, so why do the right thing now when there is no immediate positive payback and a lot of backlash?

The grants ended in the late 80s and were replaced with low interest loans. Loans that would have to repaid through increased sewer rates.  No more 55% federal discount on prices, if your community was large enough to get a grant.  Most rural areas never saw those grants because they didn’t have enough… flow… compared to the urban areas with high populations.

You’d be surprised how many rural areas don’t have sewer.  The cost of sewer requires high population density, which rural areas obviously lack.  And if a community has no sewer, that precludes large commercial activity, such as a supermarket.  That’s why most of the economic development projects I manage in my current job are for constructing the required public water and sewer infrastructure needed by a business to locate in a rural area.

A few years ago, a town of just under 900 about an hour from where I live built its first sewer system.  There was a treatment plant, collection lines, force main to the plant, and a spray field so the nitrogen-rich treated wastewater would not be put into a body of water and create a new problem.

The town is less than 2.5 square miles in size.  What do you think the cost of this system was? Keep in mind that construction took place in the middle of the recession and contractors were bidding low just to have cash flow to survive until the economy improved.

And the answer is…

The project was a relative bargain at about $18 million.  Divide that by the population of 900 and that equals $20,000 per person.  Do you have $20,000 for each person in your family so you can flush?

Neither did the town.  But they got the deal of the millennium.  Because most of the town qualified as “moderate” income (lots of retirees), my program paid for their hookup, the line going to the house from the street.  (The “not moderate income” folks had to pay that cost themselves, which is about $1,500 – $2,000 including septic tank abandonment.)

But those hookups were only about $500,000.  What about the remaining $17.5 million?  The original plan was a combination small grant and big loan which would have to be repaid over 20 years.

But thanks to the “stimulus” (that I suspect most of them opposed), the loan was “forgiven.”  Which means the whole $17.5 million became a grant.  (I guess that makes them part of the 47% who depend on government rather than taking personal responsibility for their own…flow.)

But don’t shake your head.  Soon, if it has not already happened, you too will have your hand out.

Metropolitan Dade County (that’s Miami) has begun public hearings required as part of a sewer rate increase process.  Improvements to their aging sewer and water infrastructure (plants and lines) are estimated to cost $1 billion (yes, billion) per year for the next 12 years.  (You may want to reconsider using “shit” in a way that means “worthless” because there’s very big money in it.)

I can fit inside this collapsed Miami pipe!

If you’re interested in the details, here’s the…poop…on Miami’s problems.  (Warning: not for queasy stomachs.)

But it isn’t just in Miami.  It’s in many other cities nationwide.  Washington, D.C. has brick sewers that date back to 1889.

Small cities are in deep doo doo too. I recently read an engineer’s analysis of the water and sewer systems of a small city in central Florida.  Many of the water lines are over 80 years old and made of iron. (Would you want to drink water from those rusting pipes?)

The systems need $10 million in repairs.  According to the 2010 census, that city has a population of 1,733.  My math says that’s $6,000 per person.  Who do you think they’re gonna call?

Next time you flush or turn the tap on, appreciate what that really costs. Because you’re going to find out soon enough.  And this time, there won’t be many discounts.

Older readers may remember the TV show “The Honeymooners.” Jackie Gleason was a bus driver. Do you remember what job his best friend (Art Carney) had?

Here’s his work song:


7 responses to “Can You Spare A Few Billion For A Toilet Flush?

  1. “One of my monikers at work is “Mr. Sewer.” That’s because before I came to my current job I spent 10 years administering federally funded grants to local governments for sewer projects.”

    Here’s the thing about “Government Money” both Federal and Local, it’s all tax money anyway. Those folks that benefit from it are getting back some (not all) of the money they have, and are still, paying through federal and local taxes.

    When I worked with other peoples money (OPM) I was not nearly as sensitive to that as I am now that I am retired. I kinda understand why people would oppose more government mandated “improvements” it just means more out of pocket expenses. Even those folks that didn’t have to pay for hookup costs, now have to pay an increased monthly sewage bill which they did not have on septic.While septic isn’t totally free either, the maintenance costs, if done properly on a well installed system are far less than monthly sewer. I’ve had residential septic for both of my homes for 35 years.

    I understand the potential of increased business growth through investment in economic development, it’s what I did for 25 years. But now I don’t, All I have to manage is my own money, and I do look at it differently now. I think it’s human nature. That and the closer you get to the sewer/government the worse it smells. LOL I made a funny.

    • > When I worked with other peoples money (OPM) I was not nearly as
      > sensitive to that as I am now that I am retired.

      Which has been my point all along: personal experience not only trumps theory but instructs it. Which is why discussing important issues will never lead to agreement.

      I think that has been the “good” thing about this recession. A lot of folks who thought a certain way about welfare”, about what kind of folks are on welfare, are now those folks. Maybe it will teach them some humility.

  2. And New York City has an even bigger problem than Miami. Not quite the same, but in New Orleans at the time of the May 9th (1995) flood, they had five gigantic pumps which pump water out of the City and into Lake Ponchartrain, and those pumps were 100 years old. At peak operating capacity, they could pump out 1 inch of water the first hour, and 1/2 inch every succeeding hour. And it rained 20 inches in 5 hours. So, do the math 🙂 But not only that, two of the pumps failed. Today, post-Katrina, they have 24 pumps. No doubt the Feds paid for that, because NOLA is broke. Probably 60-80% of people don’t pay property taxes, because the homeowner’s exemption is high enough ($50,000 as I recall) that their houses are worth zero, or less than that. Even though sales tax is the highest I’ve ever seen–9.5% in the City–with no exemptions for food or medications, there are an awful lot of politicians in NOLA and Baton Rouge with kids that gotta go to college.

  3. As an anarchist, I have no problem with “user fees.” You use it, you pay for it in full. Sewer and water rates should reflect the full OM&R (operation, maintenance, and replacement) cost, just as would happen with a private utility.

    Many, if not most, taxes could be eliminated, and services funded by user fees. Some say a user fee is a “tax” but I say not. Generally, a tax cannot be avoided and there is often no correlation between the tax paid and value of service received. A user fee can be avoided by not using the service.

    So if your library is run that way, I will not pay for it because I do not use it. You will pay because you do.

    Same with fire protection. I can choose to pay a fire fee but if I do not want the fire department to come to my home if it catches fire I can also choose not to pay. Yet, folks who chose not to pay when it was an option pleaded with the fire department to come out when their home caught fire.

    And I am very much against the government coming in and doling out millions after every disaster. That’s what private insurance is for. And if someone doesn’t have it…too bad.

    So you see, I am very much “pro-choice”…lol!

  4. Everything is easier said when not personally experienced. After Katrina, EVERYBODY’s private insurance premiums increased dramatically over most of Louisiana, even if you didn’t have a claim to file. So private insurance is there, but if it does all of the repair from disasters, we all end up footing the bill out of our own pockets.
    These past years, many parts of the country experienced their share of natural disaster. People who never thought it would happen in their area and never thought they would need government assistance.

    • > we all end up footing the bill out of our own pockets

      I’m not an insurance expert, but the way it should work is to spread risk.
      That means the largest possible pool.

      *If* the pool for homeowner insurance is the entire country, that spreads the risk and so the premium should be lower than if the pool were smaller.

      But what happened in Florida after the string of big hurricanes was the insurance companies went to the Republican Legislature and got the OK to establish “Florida only” hurricane subsidiaries so that only Florida homeowners were in the pool. That caused premiums to increase.

      I wonder if that is the insurance model nationwide? So that only California homeowners are in the pool for earthquake damage, which means they pay large premiums. If Californians shouldn’t have to pay for hurricanes in Florida, why should Floridians pay for California earthquakes?

      If that is not the model, then why is Florida being singled out?

  5. Insurance can hardly ever be fair. I think the risk is and should be regional and not national. Insurance cos. complained about how much more they paid in claims for hurricane victims in Florida. I assume this is ongoing. Maryland has one of the cheapest homeowners insurance rates. When I moved from MD back to LA, my insurance increased 5X as much. (absolutely shocking). Then, after Katrina, that amount just about doubled, so 10X as much as I was paying in Maryland.
    That said, when an area has been declared a disaster area by fed gov. (Pres.), that is when it far exceeds the capability of the state gov. and the private insurance companies.
    I don’t know much about insurance company processes, but what I did learn is that they use total claim payouts from recent years to determine rates for upcoming years. There’s a formula to it that I’m sure includes other factors.

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