Over 40 years ago Oneida County made the first "regionalization" effort in Greater Utica by forming the Oneida County Sewer District to serve 12 area municipalities. The goal was noble: build a system of sanitary sewer interceptors, pumping stations and a treatment plant to clean up water pollution in the Mohawk River, and make it affordable by spreading the cost over all system users by charges attached to water bills. The goal was accomplished, but flaws in the scheme have produced harmful results.
Dilution of representation: One flaw is that sewer district residents ceded control of the system to many disinterested parties, specifically, the county legislators from places untouched by the sewer district. This meant that decisions would not necessarily be made from the perspective of the customers receiving the service and paying the bills, but rather by many people who would not be held accountable for their actions - people who could use their controlling position to advance other agendas.
Uncoordinated decision-making: Another flaw is that decisions over sewers are made by people with no responsibility for other municipal services, making it unlikely that decision makers will be aware of how their decisions could adversely affect the supply of other services.
Diluted representation and uncoordinated-decision making have contributed to urban sprawl, the county's violation of water pollution laws, and the people of Utica subsidizing suburban growth.
Utica is geographically small, with most of its land previously developed. In an older age when people gravitated to cities for convenience, as structures aged and fell into disuse, they were replaced with something bigger and better. Utica was no different. With the automobile and improved highways, outlying areas also became convenient to reach. Since it usually is cheaper to build on undeveloped land ("green fields") than tearing down an old structure and rebuilding, both people and businesses started to migrate to the suburban areas as city structures aged, paying to extend the city's water and sewer services.
With the advent of the Part County Sewer District and its interceptor lines, far-flung localities were able to tap into the treatment plant located in Utica. These places could never have afforded on their own the level of service that they received. Since the vast bulk of the population lived in Utica, Utica residents paid for most of the cost of this system. In effect, Utica residents were financing suburban growth while encouraging the rotting of their city from within.
In the last 15 years or so, suburban and county leaders adopted a "growth" policy -- both wanting to increase their tax bases and encourage the creation of jobs. Extension of the sewer system was a necessary ingredient. New developments were permitted to attach their sanitary sewer lines into a county interceptor that had an overflow into the Mohawk River. The overflow, however, was there to relieve pressure from storm water from the older sections of the region, places that had combined sewers built before storm water and sewage were required to travel in separate lines. Attaching the new sanitary waste-only lines into this combined overflow was illegal because it increased the amount of sewage that would spill into the river. The county and suburbs could have avoided the problem by constructing a separate interceptor for the sanitary waste-only lines that would bypass the overflow, but that would have been very expensive. Instead, the suburbs and county avoided this cost, and expanded their tax bases by degrading the environment.
The law eventually caught up with the county, and a Consent Order was proposed to clean up the river and settle the violation with the state. This complicated document was kept under wraps, then plopped into our legislators' laps in July 2007 literally hours before they were supposed to vote on it. No time was given for anyone to digest it or come up with alternatives. The cost was estimated at $66 million, but there was little discussion of who would pay for it other than an assurance that the county taxpayers would not. That left the sewer users, the bulk of whom still are Utica residents, to pay the bill. Again, Utica residents would be tapped to finance suburban expansion. Approval of the Consent Order was proposed and seconded by legislators from Boonville and Ava, places outside the sewer district, and the rest of the legislators "rubber-stamped" the deal.
About two weeks later, the legislature "rubber-stamped" the hiring of consultants to resolve the problem. Only the "affected" municipalities were invited to participate in their selection, which meant "not Utica," and that only the places that created the problem would choose. Not surprisingly, Shumaker Engineering, which performs a lot of work for the Town of New Hartford, was one of those chosen. Through sewer user fees, Utica residents will pay New Hartford's chosen vendor to solve a problem largely created by New Hartford.
As if that were not enough, the county (i.e., the sewer users) was permitted to pay part of its fine to the State in the form of an "environmental benefit project." What project was chosen? A parking lot for New Hartford's Rayhill Trail. The Town that benefited the most from the violations got rewarded with a parking lot paid for, in significant part, by Utica residents' sewer user fees!
Reviewing other documents, it appears that the county has more "stick it to Utica residents" in store for the future, such as planning to require Utica to remove storm water from its combined sewers that will to free up capacity at the treatment plant – which could later be reallocated for suburban use.
Suburban and county policies have not resulted in "growth." Regional populations and jobs continue to decline. Instead, economic activity is merely moved from one part of the region to another. What has grown is the public infrastructure that we all must pay to maintain. While the suburbs increase their tax bases, they also increase their expenses, and lose their "suburban" character.
County and municipal leaders need to restructure how the sewer district is governed. Meanwhile, Utica city officials and county legislators need to oppose policies that shift the cost of suburban development onto Utica residents. That would not only make Utica a more affordable place to live, it will also help to preserve the suburban quality of life.
[Be sure to pick up the November "Utica Phoenix" to read "Consolidation: Top-down, or Bottom-up?"]