I gave the keynote address at Friday’s opening session of the Texas Municipal League. My theme, “Who Am I?”, was an invitation to reflect on the unique challenges of being a private person in public service. I talked about the meaning and at times uncomfortable implications of being a representative, of the conflict between certain private values and our public role, about the values we are obligated to hold as public servants, and the ultimate question of identity. The response was positive and the breakout discussion after certainly lively.
My mind returned to that conversation as I read about Miami-Dade County’s proposed billion dollar sewer-repair settlement.
Patricia’s Mazzei’s article in the Miami Herald nicely lays out the history of a legal battle between the county and multiple federal and state agencies over failures by the county to abide by the requirements of the Clean Water Act. It also lays out objections being raised by at least one group to the proposed settlement because, in the view of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, the county’s proposed repairs don’t go far enough to address future challenges.
To pay for the $1.6 billion in proposed actions, the county will have to raise rates . . . an action likely to stir opposition from ratepayers, whether residents or businesses.
The public’s outcry when taxes or fees are raised, at least when the taxes or fees are of general application, like water/sewer rates, always seem a little out of tune to me. Not that the rates don’t have a profound impact on some people (they do). Not that a rate increase is always justified (though I believe it is rare for a government entity to raise rates unnecessarily).
But when elected officials increase rates or fees of general application, it is worth noting that, under most circumstances, they are raising rates or fees on themselves.
Indeed, the incentives and disincentives that press upon city councilmembers and county commissioners push hard in the direction of keeping rates low . . . arguably too low. The cost of raising rates can be immediate (public backlash). The reward is limited to the knowledge that adequate revenues are being raised to address critical public needs . . . a somewhat esoteric reward. The cost of failing to raise rates when an increase is needed (inadequate investment in infrastructure, or in human capital), while incredibly serious if not corrected in a reasonably timely manner, is something that is paid in the future, often in a future beyond the tenure of the elected official in that office. The benefit of not raising rates includes both an immediate though typically modest sense of public appreciation coupled with the mid-range benefit of being able to claim that one had not raised rates in a number of years (which is a good bullet for campaign literature, or even the basis of a popular campaign theme).
But what I tried to argue in San Antonio, Texas, on Friday needs to be argued everywhere that elected officials decide what fees to charge residents and businesses for services.
As private citizens, we probably value keeping rates low somewhat excessively. We, too, are affected adversely when the system fails. We, too, benefit when the system runs as it should. But in so many cases, we see the immediate cost (the rate increase) and not the longer term benefit.
As public servants, we have a duty to place a higher value on system preservation and system performance than we do as citizens. We have a unique responsibility to manage the assets of the community, both built and natural, in the long-term interest of all.
That means, alas, that county commissioners and city councilmembers must learn to love fee increases . . . or, at least, learn to accept their necessity and value. We also must learn to be articulate about how they are set and why they matter, both as a necessary component of political self-preservation and as an investment in our community’s accumulated wisdom and physical assets.