Thursday, February 11, 2010

The More Things Change...

On Tuesday the Chronicle editorial told us that we are receiving a great bargain for our water and sewer services. In what can only be described as myopic, the paper cites the rates paid in the state's largest cities as evidence.

The fact that we might write smaller checks each month than the residents of Austin and Dallas is only a part of the story. As the editorial notes, the water system is falling apart, and as the city tries to expand its service, extensive work is required to bring the infrastructure up to snuff. Somebody has to pay for this, and whether we do it through rate increases or other taxes doesn't change the fact that that somebody is us.

Though the city's water system has been a source of problems for years, city officials keep trying the same essential remedies. Indeed, as the paper states, Mayor White faced similar issues when he took office. He put a band-aid on the system, served his three terms, and is now trying to skedaddle to Austin where he can "solve" bigger problems with bigger band-aids.

Until city officials propose a solution that addresses the heart of the problem, the next mayor will be faced with the same issues. Until city officials recognize the fact rate increases, or debt restructuring, or any number of other gimmicks won't solve the problem, we will get a reprise. The problem is the public nature of the water and sewer system--water and sewer service is not a proper function of government.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find someone who sings the praises of the service provided by the U.S. Postal System, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), or virtually any other illegitimate government service. Yet, few question the legitimacy of the city providing our water and sewer service.

The poor quality service delivered by most government agencies is a fact that few would dispute, and perhaps even fewer could explain.

The fundamental explanation is the absence of the profit motive. Government agencies will remain in business no matter how poorly they perform. After all, what options do their "customers" have? There is no alternative to the TSA or the DPS. We are forced to use their service whether we want to or not. We are forced to endure long lines, follow arbitrary rules, and succumb to whatever mandates they wish to impose upon us. Absent the profit motive--the pursuit of their own self-interest--government agencies have no reason to provide quality service.

The same is true of water and sewer services. Certainly, government officials make all kinds of noises about serving the public. They listen to complaints from citizens and vow to correct the problem. But whether they do or not--and they usually don't--the citizens still don't have a choice.

A business that doesn't correct consumer complaints isn't a business for long. It will lose customers. Motivated by the desire for profit they will offer consumers the services that are desired and correct things when they go wrong.

City officials will never correct the problems with Houston's water and sewer system because they have no motivation to do so. White didn't fix the problems that he inherited, nor will Ma Parker. Nor will her successor. They will do as White did, which was exactly what his predecessors did--find temporary fixes and pass the problem on.

We don't have problems getting bread, or milk, or computers, or virtually anything else provided by private businesses. Their desire for profit motivates them to produce the values we need and desire. Their desire for profit motivates them to develop the distribution channels needed to deliver their products and services to consumers. It is time we let them do the same with water and sewer services.

No comments: