Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Water, Water Everywhere

In his rambling speech a week ago against Parker Toler's water-rate-increase bill, Council member Charlie Tygard said:
We need to start looking toward the private utility districts who are able to provide these services at better rates, better services than what Metro is now. Now I support our employees in Metro; uhh, I was told something by Councilman [Michael] Craddock earlier this evening in the audit that came out that just leads me to believe that if you believe that the water department is running as lean and as mean as it needs to be, then we've all had the wool pulled over our eyes.
My ears immediately perked up when I heard Tygard's association of Craddock with insider information for obvious reasons (incidently, "The Insider's" blog was taken down after a Scene article connected it to Craddock, but it still lives on in cached form).

Turns out that Tygard's cryptic little nugget was a reference to a Metro Water audit that found that in 2004 some of its own employees had treated (no pun intended) a private contractor to a $2,300 celebration at taxpayer expense. Craddock's info was not inside at all, and the audit has been reported to the Council's Audit Committee "for months" before Tuesday's vote on water.

But the intrigue loaded into Tygard's comments make unethical and inefficient stewardship of tax money sound like a charge of systemic malaise that nothing short of privatizing our water supply would solve. But keep in mind, a private contractor participated in the misuse of $2,300; that is as much an indictment of the private sector as it is of the public sector.

On the contrary, I fail to see any evidence suggesting that this misdeed indicates problems wider than the poor judgment and flawed personal choices of a few people. According to the audit (via the City Paper), the system worked:
  1. Metro Council commissions a Water Services audit
  2. Audit finds that $2,300 funds were misappropriated for a private party w/booze and Predators
  3. Water Service acts on audit by requiring employees and contractor to repay funds
  4. Audit reports the misappropriation and follow-up back to Metro Council
The only possible flaw that I can see in the Director's follow-up is the possibility that employees were only required to pay the money back, but did not face any other disciplinary measures. Otherwise, ethical brakes were placed on employees and the money was recovered.

So, why all Tygard's grandstanding? Simply privatizing Water Services does not guarantee that employee malfeasance would not occur. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that privatizing public services shields them from public scrutiny and control:

  • Last year a private contractor vested with the responsibility of erecting highway guard rails cut corners with our safety and our taxes by sinking posts at dangerously shallow levels.
  • Privatizing utilities and removing government oversight also carries the risk of poorer service and higher prices. Privatizing electric service failed the public in California, but profitted private companies. Privatizing electric service in Texas is failing many parts of the state as TXU Energy chooses its bottom line over public interest.
  • The largest water service privatization contract in the US was terminated by the city of Atlanta in 2003 after the contractor underestimated cost, demanded more money than stipulated in the original contract, improperly billed the city for work it did not do, neglected rehabilitation of infrastructure, and broke its promise of lower bills, which increased every year of the private contract.
If nothing else, Atlanta should serve as a lesson to Charlie Tygard and all of the other local privatizers: we do not get ethical behavior from government officials by switching systems and loosing new forms of misbehavior; we get ethical behavior by demanding it from those whom we can and then holding their feet to the fire where we must.

Just keep in mind that when Tygard or Craddock tell you that they are fighting for your interest in not paying higher water rates, they are also opening the door to private companies, who could care less about your interest and who stand to make a lot of money off commercializing our public water supply.

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