New Albany: Sewer “Crisis” 2010: Part 2 – Why This Isn’t a “Crisis” but the Natural Result of City Council’s Irresponsibility.


With Randy Smith’s permission, NAC is happy to reprint this series of five articles as counterpoint to the prevailing blather.

New Albany: Sewer “Crisis” 2010

Part 2 – Why This Isn’t a “Crisis” but the Natural Result of City Council’s Irresponsibility

In an earlier note, I gently chastised fellow New Albanians for “not paying attention.” Despite the fact that local media have exhaustively covered the ongoing financial drama of our municipal sewer utility, it seems that most of my neighbors don’t have the energy or interest to monitor how the city’s executive and legislative branches are managing it.

This forgivable lapse in attention by voters has a steep downside, however. The words “rate hike” strike us the same way a mouse scurrying across our kitchen tiles does. Those words startle and frighten even the hardiest among us. Just as with the mouse in the house, we hear ourselves saying “How did that happen?”

More importantly, it leaves us susceptible to falling for just about any explanation. We’re afraid and confused. We’re willing to listen to just about any explanation, no matter how plausible, no matter how absurd. Is it corruption? Fraud? Incompetence?

I’m careful enough not to rule out possible explanations, but isn’t the most likely answer, well, the most likely? Isn’t it most likely that we New Albanians just get to go first and get to pay for decades of inattention to the realities of modern environmental stewardship?

You are hearing your neighbors speculate about the “mouse” and where it came from. More than a few say the mouse is actually a rat!

Of more significance, you are hearing your elected officials on the New Albany City Council expressing their “shock” at the appearance of this “mouse,” or in the alternative, denying that there ever was a mouse in the kitchen.

Not one of the 9 council members can plausibly claim shock. Anyone paying attention, and particularly anyone who reads the paper, much less anyone who attends the bimonthly city council meetings, knew this was coming.

In fact, the council has been warned repeatedly that rate increases were absolutely imperative. Not are. Were. The council has fought vigorously against this reality by cutting and delaying every plaintive request from successive sewer boards to allow them to follow Indiana statutes and make the city’s sole utility enterprise viable and self-supporting.

Well guess what, folks? Mice are the least of our problems. The wolf is at the door.

New Albany’s sewer utility has defaulted on its debts. It undertook considerable debt to begin a program to stop sanitary sewer overflows and to ensure the separation of nasty sewage from stormwater runoff. That program is showing results, but the work is not over. We have to pay for it.

Our city council, however, has emphatically signaled that they don’t care that we are in default. They unanimously rejected a sewer board recommendation to impose the 70% rate hike necessary to cure our default. What’s more, they played illegitimate parliamentary games to prevent the amending of that recommendation to accept a much more palatable offer from the creditors who hold the city utility’s fate in their vaults.

This inexcusable dereliction of their collective duty (not every member was present, but the absentees reportedly would ratify the vote) puts the utility in a dramatically dire situation. The word is “receivership,” often compared to foreclosure. But unlike foreclosure, which, after all, has a relatively rapid conclusion, receivership is more akin to being occupied by a hostile foreign army.

If the council continues on its stated course (and everything I’ve been able to learn says they are hell-bent on giving the creditors a big, fat, hairy signal), what do you think those bankers, public and private, are going to do?

Allow me to enlighten you to the worst case. They will, in short order, ask a judge to appoint a New Albany Sewer Czar to dictate to us the terms under which we will have our effluent flushed and treated. Said czar or czarina will fix the problem in such a way as to guarantee the lenders the full benefits of the return they contracted for when they allowed us to borrow their money.

Will New Albanians win in this scenario? A few might. Those few who somehow managed to acquire New Albany Municipal Utility bonds will see their shaky loan certificates become solid gold. The rest of us will be required to gild them with rates dictated from afar.

Oh, the faces may stay the same. But city council control over rates will, in our city, be something for historians to reflect on. It certainly won’t be anything we’ll have to trouble ourselves with for the next decade.

On our current course, we’ll look back on this “crisis” as the good old days.