Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Spending money to fix sewers isn't sexy

Think of this as the public administration equivalent of ignoring the "Check Engine" light on your car even while the jalopy sputters and wheezes and spews black smoke from the tailpipe. At least it's still running. And you would rather spend your money on a fancy high-definition television so you can more fully enjoy the poetic artistry of Duck Dynasty.

It is perfectly understandable that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has a lovely wish list of many things he wants to do to make his city more attractive, more beckoning to investment, more artsy-smartsy. He's a mayor. That's what mayors do.

Ditto Tampa Mayor Buckhorn, as well as the city halls in Clearwater, Largo and everyplace else.

And then — stuff happens. Hurricane Hermine happens. Uh-oh.

At last count — and the count is ongoing — the effects of Hurricane Hermine caused at least 172 million gallons of partly treated and untreated sewage to be dumped into the streets and waterways of the Tampa Bay region. It would stun no one if the tally eventually exceeds even that massive volume of icky water polluting the area. It is certainly an understatement to suggest this isn't good. And it doesn't smell very nice, either.

Given the geography of Tampa Bay, the lion's share of the spills occurred in Pinellas County and in particular St. Petersburg, which accounted for 70 million gallons of partly treated sewage discharge.

To be sure, when the governments of both Hillsborough and Pinellas County eagerly woo tourists to visit the area to boat, kayak, fish, swim and walk the beaches, it is hardly a big selling point to have the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay suddenly turn into the swimming pool scene from Caddyshack by a multiple of 172 million.

It's not as if the local governments were blindsided by the storm. Untreated sewage has been discharged into the Tampa Bay for years if the local water treatment systems are plagued by a heavy dew. And not enough is done about it aside from some intense chin-rubbing, occasional improvements and sternly worded protestations of alarm from our city halls.

There's a simple reason for this. Paying for stuff like rebuilding a massive water treatment system simply isn't very much fun. And it certainly isn't cheap.

Days ago the Tampa City Council, for the first time in anyone's memory, took a big gulp and voted to approve a 30-year, $251 million property tax hike to fund improvements to the city's drainage infrastructure, which in some parts of Tampa is more than 100 years old, or roughly dating back to when Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were encamped here.

But the vote was not unanimous, at 4-2, even though heavy rains turn Bayshore Boulevard and Gandy Boulevard into oceans of angst.

You could make an argument that one of the hardest things for any local government to do is to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on projects nobody will ever see. If a city council or a mayor suddenly found $251 million plopped into their lap, the natural inclination would be to fund feel-good stuff like piers, improve waterfront parks, create chi-chi artist colonies, or perhaps pay for accoutrements to complement things like Jeff Vinik's dream to turn downtown Tampa into Brigadoon meets Camelot.

But sewers? Water treatment plants? Drainage? What public official wants their legacy in office to be — See that manhole cover? I did that for a mere $251 million.

And these projects take many, many years to complete. By the time Tampa uses up that $251 million in drainage money, or the city of St. Petersburg finally fixes a water treatment system that does not involve pumping tens of millions of gallons of poopy water into Tampa Bay, chances are the current City Council members and the mayors will be long gone — perhaps in more ways than one.

Besides they don't name schools, or bridges or monuments for profiles in property tax hikes.

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