Our view: City shouldn't 'wing it' on infrastructure repairs

April 11, 2014 10:32:23 AM



New roads mean new ruts, as essayist G.K. Chesterton pointed out almost 100 years ago. 


On Thursday, the Columbus City Council held a public forum to discuss the idea of raising taxes to secure a $5 million capital improvement loan to repair, replace and improve city infrastructure, primarily road repair and repaving, drainage and sidewalk improvements.  


Approximately 50 residents turned out for the meeting and 10 used the opportunity to address the board.  


Based on their comments, the consensus seemed to be that while there is no great enthusiasm for a increase in taxes, residents understand the necessity of maintaining the city's infrastructure. The tax increase is a modest one -- a 1.1 mill increase. For a $100,000 home, that would be an additional $11 in annual taxes. 


Despite Councilman Charlie Box's assertion that bonds are how all cities fund capital improvements, some citizens voiced concern about using long-term debt to fund routine maintenance. However, considering interest rates are at near-historic lows, no one seemed too concerned with the size of the proposed property tax increase. 


So, while there seemed to be no visceral opposition to the tax boost, citizens voiced a clear concern with the fact that the city has not defined what they will specifically do with the $5 million. This concern is understandable. If the city doesn't know exactly what it wants to repair, how does it even know how much money it needs? 


While the council has at its disposal a report on the condition of the city's streets prepared by city engineer Kevin Stafford, the council was not prepared to state exactly which projects would be pursued.  


As the council did previously, the bond money will be equally distributed among the city's six wards, an idea that some questioned. 


Former city councilman Jay Jordan noted distributing the money in such a fashion might well result in a "patchwork quilt" of projects, when a paving project abruptly ends where one ward ends and another begins. 


In general, the residents at Thursday's meeting advocated a master plan for addressing the city's infrastructure, with a detailed plan that residents can see. Stafford noted that historically such a plan was followed. 


We have long advocated that the council should do a better job of engaging residents and seeking their input in making these kinds of plans. 


Thursday's meeting certainly illustrated the value of that. 


Residents have a different way of looking at these sorts of things. 


For example, the city will borrow $5 million to be paid back over 20 years to be used to pay for as yet unspecified work. 


As Jordan pointed out, that sort of arrangement would be laughable for a regular citizen. 


Using an estimate that a street's "life-span" is seven years, the city would be still be paying for that street 13 years after it "expired." 


"I wouldn't finance a car that way," Jordan noted. 


Nor, he said, would any bank lend money to someone who was not prepared to give the bank detailed information on what the money would be used for. 


There is also the matter of maintaining the infrastructure after the $5 million is spent. Just as a car needs regular maintenance, the city's infrastructure will also require attention. Where is that money? It's not budgeted for in the general fund. 


Stafford estimated that in today's economy, the city would need in the neighborhood of $500,000 each year to maintain the city's infrastructure. The city's general fund should include sufficient money for that maintenance. The old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" certainly applies. 


These are valid points, of course, but you wonder if the council would have considered the merits of the arguments were it not for the forum that was provided Thursday. 


Before this bond issue moves forward, the city needs a defined, comprehensive plan for first repairing our infrastructure and then funding the continual maintenance of it.