Discussions of Wichita’s deteriorating infrastructure and economy should lead us to ask: Who has been in charge, and is this all we can do?
Recently the City of Wichita decided to use a new method to measure the condition of city streets. The new method is Remaining Service Life (RSL). It’s a measure of the condition of city streets. The city has also used a Pavement Condition index.
A recent white paper from the city held this analysis of the city’s streets and their future condition:
The model demonstrated that, with the current level of $8 million in annual funding, the City’s street network would decline in value from the current $444.9 million to $79.6 million over the 40-year period. In addition, the current RSL value of 42,213 lane mile years would fall to 5,524 lane mile years. In other words, the continuation of past strategies with the current level of funding would result in a deterioration of the Wichita street infrastructure in the long term. However, over the same 40-year period, utilizing new strategies, the current level of funding would result in streets in basically the same condition as today, with the Network Service Value increasing by $14 million (to $458.3 million) and the RSL slightly higher at 42,898.
The takeaway from this passage is that the city has not been maintaining its streets adequately. The city’s analysis finds that at current funding levels, the overall condition of Wichita’s streets will continue to decline. This message is not new. As you can see in this chart from the city, the Pavement Condition Index has been deteriorating, and as of its publication in the 2012 Performance Measures Report was projected to continue to decline. The black line running horizontally near the top of the chart is the city’s benchmark as to where it would like the pavement condition index to be.
In its explanation, the Performance Measure Report says “Because many streets in residential areas have deteriorated significantly, an increased investment in street maintenance will be necessary to raise Wichita’s street condition to the benchmark.” This represents future spending that will be required in order to correct the city’s lack of care for its capital assets.
Political leadership and long-term thinking
On these and other issues, the Wichita Eagle recently quoted Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer: “We’ve put them off for too long. We didn’t want the challenges. We didn’t want the tax bills. But now, to maintain our quality of life, we’ve got to catch up.”
It’s often said that business is interested only in short term results. Driven by the pressures of profit, business firms can’t invest for the long term. Investments and decisions involving a long time horizon, it is contended, must be left to government.
But here we see the city failing to maintain the assets we need to survive. Instead of proactively managing its assets, we have Wichita’s mayor telling us that we have to raise taxes to “catch up” with what we haven’t been doing. That is lack of long-term thinking and decision making.
When discussing the deteriorating condition of city assets or the city’s poor economy, Mayor Carl Brewer speaks as though he was a bystander. But he’s been mayor for over seven years, and was on the city council before that time. During that time, he and other city leaders have boasted of not increasing property taxes. While the property tax rate has been stable (in fact it has risen slightly), property tax revenue has increased due to development of new property and rising assessment values. Even with this rising revenue, the city has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance. The way to interpret this is that the city has really been engaging in deficit spending under Brewer’s leadership. The city didn’t spend what was needed to maintain its assets — assets like streets, water, and sewer infrastructure — and now the mayor tells us we need to increase taxes and spending to make up for this.
The economist Milton Friedman told us that it’s more important to look at government spending rather than the level of taxation. That’s because spending must eventually be paid for, either through current taxes or future taxation. The federal government generate deficits and can pay for spending through creating inflation. Fortunately, cities and states can’t do that.
But as we’ve seen, cities like Wichita can incur costs without paying for them. This is a form of deficit spending. By deferring maintenance of our infrastructure, the city has pushed spending to future years. The magnitude of this deferred spending is huge.
This form of deficit spending is “off the books” and doesn’t appear in city financial statements. But it’s real, as the mayor now admits.
Everything that can be done, has been done
City leaders often tell us that budgets have been cut, services have been pared, salaries have been frozen, and there’s nothing more the city can do except to raise taxes.
But now and then, the city lets us know that there are alternatives. From the recent white paper: “Using the new model, street maintenance will be done more efficiently, matching treatment options to streets in the most efficient manner possible.”
Can we conclude that everything that can be done has been done, except operating more efficiently?