Speer: Realistic expectations in tough times

Infrastructure is vitally important to any community and its growth. Prosperous communities have good infrastructure in place, declining communities don’t.

Such has been the mantra from any economic developer over the years.

Faced with today’s economic challenges, however, how can you balance maintaining infrastructure costs against what citizens can afford? Where is that dividing line between dreams and reality?

A week ago State Rep. Peter Pettalia held town hall meetings across the region that addressed road repairs. Tuesday, Alpena city officials heard from a consultant ways to raise revenue for needed water and sewer repairs.

Last week the newspaper ran stories on employee negotiations at Alpena Regional Medical Center and wage concessions at Alpena Public Schools.

Meanwhile gas and grocery prices seem to yo-yo back and forth and the cost of insurances keep climbing higher and higher with every premium. Unemployment still is high, housing sales remain sluggish and the region’s population continues to shrink.

That is the reality in my world, my neighbor’s world and I dare venture to guess, your world too this morning.

With that in mind, how do we balance needed infrastructure repairs against what people can afford? Where is the place where common sense, fairness and responsibility come together in perfect harmony?

I wondered that point after reading the consultant’s report on water and sewage to Alpena officials. A day later the newspaper ran a story with some of council’s thoughts on that very subject. No one would argue the fact the city’s water and sewerage system needs updated. Readers could argue, however, whether the consultant offered realistic suggestions given our community’s economic reality.

Even more aggravating is that these suggestions of raising revenue comes on the heels of the city’s meter installation, a move residents were told would account for more accurate water readings around town and, more revenue. However, in the initial readings, the meters have unearthed some inaccuracies but nothing like that originally projected by officials when the installation was being “sold” to residents.

I see the new consultant this week recommending to council a “Cadillac” system when finished. Instead, I believe the economic reality of our community is such that we should be considering a “Cobalt” approach that ultimately, is much more affordable, yet still does the job we need of it.

If any of the consultant’s three options are enacted as proposed, I believe it would be disastrous for the city and a boom for any of the surrounding townships around Alpena, with the exception of Alpena Township (whose residents I would presume would be facing similar rate hikes as well in the near future, since the city supplies water for most township residents.)

Who in their right mind would want to move into the city when water and sewer prices would be be as high as what the consultants suggested? Alpena would become a real estate company’s nightmare. Have you driven through Detroit neighborhoods recently? I can easily envision abandoned structures just like that here over time.

Like road repairs, few would argue the city’s aging water and sewer system needs addressed. Let’s tackle the repairs in stages, however, and be creative in how we pay for those repairs. Should rates be raised? I would think a good case could be made for some increase, but let’s do so fairly and reasonably and with the average Joe and Jane in mind. Let’s not scare everyone away from the city for Heaven’s sake.

Council members I’m confident are smart enough to realize what residents can afford and not afford right now. What good does it do to enact any of the three suggestions, if it only results in less revenue over time because we’ve forced people out of the city from the high fees?

These are tough economic times. Given the numerous union contracts that expire this year for many of the community’s top employers, the truth is things could get tougher economically before they get better. In most instances employers will be looking for concessions, while at best, the unions hope they can hold the line for their members.

Can you imagine how city residents might be affected? Do city officials really want to add to residents’ financial burden right now?

It’s great for city officials to dream, plan and envision for the future. It’s encouraging that infrastructure is a priority.

In those dreams, however, also has to be a dose of reality and fairness. Dream the dream, but do so utilizing the dollars the community can afford today, not with what a consultant recommends because that’s what the best system would cost.

A dollar only can be stretched in so many directions. Unfortunately, from what I read in what was recommended, if council would choose any of the three without making some revisions, it would mean serious financial hardship for many.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13. Read his blog, More BS?(Bill Speer) at www.thealpenanews.com.