Consider exiting water business
November 16, 2011
Regarding the re-emergence of the Douglas County water district consolidation controversy, my friend Jack Van Dien touched on a fundamental truth (R-C letters, Nov. 4) that needs to be expanded on. Douglas County manages some water districts that are relatively healthy and others that are financially troubled, which means that the cost of delivering water to ratepayers in some districts is considerably higher than others.
In the summer of 2010 the Douglas County Board of Commissioners brought to a close a long, drawn out study period that contemplated consolidating all the water districts under its management. This was the culmination of months of heated BOC meeting debates, emotional letters to the editor, $40,000 of taxpayer money spent on an outside consultant, and untold hours of staff time diverted from their regular duties to work on the issue.
The county viewed the fundamental problem as inequality between water district cost structures. The only solution under consideration was the politics of rough justice; a water district shotgun marriage.
But ratepayers in the healthy water districts outnumbered – and could outvote – those in the problem districts and were vocal in their objection to the patent unfairness of being put into a mega-district that would force them to pay for problems they didn’t create. In the end, the majority of commissioners backed away from electoral hara-kiri and voted consolidation down.
Looking back, the process produced only disgruntled winners who resented being put at risk for sharply increased water rates, and bitter losers whose water district problems still hang over their heads. Even worse, folks in problem districts had had their hopes built up that consolidation could save them from financial ruin, only to have them dashed when it failed. No one was happy, and hard feeling from the consolidation fight may have ended up costing a very good commissioner his seat in the following election.
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Now the county commissioners are picking the scab on this wound by contemplating consolidation 2.0. A better idea would be to take a lesson from all the effort and money spent on the last go-around and recognize that the political process is a blunt instrument that tends to pit groups of people against one another instead of ferreting out solutions to underlying problems.
Which takes us back to Mr. Van Dien’s suggestion that managing the water districts should be de-politicized and spun off to one or more nongovernment entities. Perhaps the politicians should dig out that gold-plated consulting firm report and study it for insights on how the county might exit the water district management business altogether.
Mr. Van Dien suggested that a nonprofit might run the districts. I would recommend that the county consider for-profit entities as well. They couldn’t make any bigger hash of things than already exists. When ratepayers become customers of individually run water districts, they will have more power as consumers than they do as voters in a countywide political process.