Wayne's Words: Joliet sewer, water hike coming soon

Wayne Horne | 8/25/2016, 6 a.m.
For the past several weeks, the Joliet City Council has focused so much attention on the Rialto Theatre you would ...

For the past several weeks, the Joliet City Council has focused so much attention on the Rialto Theatre you would think it’s the biggest issue facing the city.

Solving the Rialto’s financial woes is not the council’s responsibility. Fixing the city’s dismal sewer and water system and finding the money for much-needed repairs and upgrades is the real problem and should be the council’s main focus.

Joliet’s sewer and water rates are projected to increase by a whopping 88 percent in the next 10 years, according to a report from the city’s utility department. That report was presented at a Finance Committee meeting held last week.

That same report is expected to be presented to the city council on September 19. If the financial proposal aimed at fixing the problem is approved by the council, water and sewer rates will rise incrementally each year and in 10 years will be nearly double what they are now.

Why such a drastic increase? Maintenance is required to keep any system running. But this goes beyond simple maintenance. We’re talking about aging infrastructure that will soon result in the need to replace worn out pipes and wells. Current water and sewer rates simply cannot support the proposed system overhaul.

The proposal to increase rates to fund the improvements is nothing new. Previous city administrations and councils have been passing the buck on this project for years. The Environmental Protection Agency mandated Joliet to separate storm water and wastewater decades ago. City officials kept putting it off. Sewer and water pipes need to be replaced at twice the current rate. The “wait and see” well has dried up and it is now time to pay up.

Joliet could have and should have completed the sewer separation mandate more than 10 years ago. The city had the money from gaming revenues and those revenues were supposed to be earmarked for just those types of capital improvements and infrastructure repairs.

Those at the helm in Joliet also took a gamble. They kept sewer and water rates artificially low, rebated property taxes and put off the expensive infrastructure improvements.

Instead, they built a ballpark, a water park and a museum. Gaming revenue subsidized social service agencies, schools and other non-core city services. It’s all listed in the Riverboat Gaming Revenue Distribution report for years 1992 through 2009 and can be found on the city’s website.

The city paid for storm sewer repairs and sewer and water operations with the gaming revenues instead of increasing the rates. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. The Water and Sewer Fund is an enterprise fund. That means it must generate revenues sufficient to cover expenses. Instead, the money was used to subsidize the system.

Of course no one complained when rates didn’t rise as they should have. Today all gaming revenue is used for day to day expenses. The subsidies have dried up because the water and sewer utility is now operated as intended – a stand-alone enterprise fund. The problem is the delayed infrastructure expenses have come due and the only way to pay for it is with a whopping rate increase.