Grass growing longer along roadsides, fewer library hours and parks that aren't so manicured are obvious consequences of local government cuts forced by declining property tax collections. But a more serious result of local government's financial problems was the burst water pipe in Pinellas County that left 100,000 residents boiling water through the Christmas holiday.
The 48-inch water line that carried drinking water to south Pinellas County utility customers had been scheduled for replacement in 2009. But the county delayed that project, along with many others, as revenues declined and residents resisted increases in taxes or fees. That trend is unlikely to abate anytime soon across Tampa Bay and Florida as local governments are projected to be fiscally strapped for years due to new limits on property tax collections.
The impact of deferring water-line maintenance was clear on Dec. 23. Crews working on another part of the line discovered the ruptured pipe after water bubbled to the surface near 142nd Avenue N and Belcher Road in Largo. The road flooded and five of Belcher Road's six lanes were consumed by a crater 15 feet deep. Residents south of Belleair Road were told they would have no water, or would have to boil their water, throughout the Christmas holiday.
The county government's response has been impressive, particularly considering that the emergency happened two days before Christmas. Residents were informed of the situation through the county's reverse 911 system, the news media were updated regularly, and free water distribution sites were set up and staffed by county workers, even on Christmas Day. As of Tuesday, water had been restored to most customers and the boil water order was lifted, but work to fix the pipe was ongoing, complicated by the discovery that 26 feet of the aging line must be replaced. Then the road must be reconstructed. Belcher Road between East Bay Drive and Ulmerton Road, a major traffic corridor, remained closed, inconveniencing thousands of motorists.
Maintaining and replacing public infrastructure — water and sewer lines, bridges, roads and water treatment plants — isn't a sexy use of public dollars at any time, particularly in the midst of a recession. But the broken pipe is a reminder of that taxpayers ultimately are making a trade-off. Putting it off until tomorrow merely drives up the cost and inconvenience when the work has to be done under emergency conditions. That lesson is likely to become even more clear in the years ahead.