It’s a term you often hear, politician love to scream it and lord knows every campaign in history has talked about infrastructure and the need for improvement. Unfortunately a lot of the time infrastructure is something that is talked about and the drum beaten for it, but takes a backseat when the budget process starts.
Before we delve off into this topic too much let’s define Infrastructure
Webster’s dictionary defines infrastructure as the system of public works of a county, state or region; also the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity. Now for the purpose of these series of articles I will be referring to infrastructure as purely roads, drainage, water and sewer systems. In later articles I will talk about deferred maintenance issues with regards to buildings and aspect of this definition. I will touch on equipment when we discuss equipment replacement within the city and will talk about the personnel aspect when we discuss the salary survey. So again for the purpose of the next three to four articles our discussion of infrastructure will only focus on roads, drainage and water and sewer systems.
So back to the topic at hand “Why does infrastructure often take a back seat?”
I am sure there are a lot of reasons for this, but there are two that seem to be most prevalent;
First of all infrastructure is expensive. Maintaining, improving and creating infrastructure is an extremely expensive process. It is heavily capital and labor intensive. I personally didn’t realize how expensive this concept was until two years ago when as a commissioner I was working on my first budget. So with it being so expensive it is a line item that is reasonably easy to pull monies out of to fund other aspects of city business. It would be easy to grab $50,000 out of an infrastructure line item to fund a park renovation and for the most part go unnoticed. The issue that is created though is that first infrastructure is really more of a compounding thing, so the $50,000 that went unbudgeted this year most likely wouldn’t be replaced next year so over seven years that is a road that goes unpaved or a or water or sewer system that doesn’t get replaced. Plus most cities don’t have enough money budgeted in infrastructure anyway to keep up with the need and over a period of time of using this line item in this manner, you wake up one morning and there are no funds being allocated here. Which is where the City of Marshall found themselves several years ago. Most would be shocked to know that the City of Marshall for an extended period of time had absolutely NO to very little budgeted dollars going to infrastructure replacement.
The second reason that infrastructure is often neglected is let’s face it. It isn’t really that sexy of a concept, putting in new water and sewer lines and fixing roads doesn’t get your name on plaques and doesn’t typically generate any sort of grand opening or ribbon cutting. It is a city’s core necessity but it’s kind of like the city’s offensive line if you were to put it into football terms. When everything is working great no one says a word, but when something messes up the finger gets pointed. Like the offensive line is to a football team, that is what infrastructure is to a city, it is the most important aspect of what we can do. If you get that right it opens up the door for success everywhere else.
Probably the largest area of focus of our current and most recent past city commission was and is the effort to expand the city’s budgeted dollars in areas related to the maintenance and repair of the City’s crumbling infrastructure. For many years infrastructure repair and maintenance had taken a back seat and for an extended period of time this line item had virtually nothing budgeted. From our estimates we as a City need to be budgeting approximately $2,000,000 a year in road replacement and approximately $1,500,000 in water and sewer line replacement annually to keep up with normal wear and tear on the roads. Approximately 5 years ago neither of these line items had any funds in them. The budget that was most recently passed for the 2017 fiscal year provided for approximately $1,700,000 in road replacement (approximately $1,200,000 from the general fund and approximately $500,000 from street maintenance fund) and approximately $800,000 in water and sewer line replacement, in comparison the 2014 budget for water and sewer line replacement was approximately $28,000. Yes you are reading that right $28,000. You can see although we are not where we need to be from a budget standpoint regarding these dollars we are making headway very quickly!
Along with increasing budgeted dollars for infrastructure replacement in the last several months I brought forth an ordinance which was passed unanimously that forces any dollars that are budgeted for as infrastructure replacement to be spent on infrastructure replacement. If these dollars are not spent in any given budget year they are continuously rolled from year to year and can only be spent on infrastructure replacement.
The City of Marshall has come a long way and the overall culture in our city government is Infrastructure, Infrastructure and more Infrastructure. Although we have come a long way we still have an even longer way to go until we have brought this city back to where it needs from an infrastructure standpoint.
Thank you for taking the time to read this most recent post on Infrastructure. I look forward to posting my next blog in about week which will be the second installment on infrastructure and will focus on streets.