GEORGE KENNEDY: Lack of basic information puts city in twilight zone

Thursday, May 29, 2014 | 5:38 p.m. CDT; updated 7:37 a.m. CDT, Friday, May 30, 2014

I was 20 minutes late getting to Wednesday’s meeting of the Downtown Leadership Council committee that is grappling with the issues involving our aging infrastructure. My tardiness was due entirely to the fact that the city website carried the wrong address for the meeting.

That’s a small thing, but I mention it because it seems to me emblematic of the confusion and misinformation that complicate this important community conversation.

Brian Treece, a member of the committee, was so frustrated by it all that he proposed, as his first suggestion for the committee’s report to the City Council, that the city manager be required to “retract or clarify and apologize for” his statement back in December that the city had run out of sewer and electricity capacity for further downtown development.

As we’ve seen, that turns out to have been not quite the case.

The leadership council, you’ll recall, was the recipient when the City Council decided to outsource the responsibility for coming up with plausible funding sources for sewer and electricity expansion and for soothing the public angst generated by the fumbling of city staff and policymakers.

As I listened to Mr. Treece, committee chair Nick Peckham and leadership council chair Brent Gardner begin figuring out what that report should say, I was repeatedly struck by the apparent elusiveness of facts that I’d have thought were basic.

One example is the supposedly straightforward matter of just how much capacity the existing sewer main that serves downtown has now. I’m not sure Public Works Director John Glascock added much to the sum of human knowledge when he said at a recent meeting that there’s plenty of capacity, “except when it rains.”

Another basic question is how much money is available to tackle the shortfalls, whatever they may be. City Council members and the manager have talked of possible increases in taxes and of another bond issue.

Committee members said Wednesday that they’ve heard from various sources that funds are available in a Water and Light account and that sewer projects can be rearranged to free up resources.

Lacking solid current data, the committee resorted to a Black & Veatch study from 2004. The bottom line is certainly eye-catching, maybe even heart-stopping. The consultant concluded that we’ll need to spend $250 million on sewers and our treatment plant to handle the population expected by 2030.

Meanwhile, Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas, with the help of city staff, has done a preliminary analysis of our current development fees and the actual costs of growth.

He calculates that the fees the city now charges for hooking up to sewer, water and electric lines are covering only about 12 percent of the cost of providing infrastructure to new construction. The rest is being paid by the community as a whole.

Councilman Thomas is surveying his constituents, of whom I’m one, to find out what percentage of the costs of growth should be paid by new projects.

I don’t see why our new neighbors shouldn’t pay their own way. Do you?

In his email to constituents, Ian notes that “a representative of the Central Missouri Development Council” – I’m guessing Donnie Stamper – argues that higher fees might discourage in-town development and raise the cost of housing, exacerbating our shortage of low-income housing.

Ian points out that our current fees are about half the amount Lawrence, Kan., charges and one-fifth the charges in Iowa City. Both of those cities seem to be thriving.

That, it seems to me, is the kind of analysis the City Council should have asked for and city staff should have performed long since.

Back at the committee meeting, Nick Peckham joked, “We would all have statues made of us if we would solve these problems without costing anything.”

No need to hire a sculptor just yet.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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Ellis Smith May 30, 2014 | 3:47 a.m.

Good point, George. Making decisions based on little or no facts and/or data is a bit like walking around blindfolded: chances of making the best decision aren't good.

There was a famous cartoon on that subject years ago. We see (from above) a mouse looking at three closed doors. Behind one door is a large piece of cheese, behind another of the doors is a mousetrap, and behind the third door is a big cat. The cartoon caption says, "sometimes we must make decisions without as much data as we'd like."

The city council needs to avoid choosing either the trap or cat.

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