Lost: sense, of the common sort
Nov. 11, 2013
by Ivan Raconteur

When the potholes in the road become so large enterprising individuals begin booking mule rides for tourists to explore them, most people will agree it is time to do something about it.

When public buildings deteriorate to the point hard hats are issued to visitors to protect them from falling debris, even the staunchest critics may concede that corrective action is necessary.

And, when a municipal sewer system is experiencing so much inflow and infiltration it seems more water is entering through improper channels than through intended ones, it is difficult to ignore the problem.

Why do we let things get to this point?

It seems to be a chronic problem with public infrastructure.

We hear the stories at all levels of government. We are told school buildings need to be replaced because it would be too expensive to repair them. Roads and bridges are deemed unsafe because they have been ignored too long. All kinds of public infrastructure are allowed to reach critical levels of disrepair, and then we are forced to make drastic decisions.

These are complex issues that will take people much smarter than I to solve, but one cause seems obvious, even to me. Routine maintenance isn’t. Routine, I mean.

This is not because we don’t know what needs to be done.

From the time new infrastructure is created, the people in charge have at least a general idea what it will cost to maintain it.

It is no secret, for example, that roads have a projected useful life, and will need to be maintained at predictable intervals.

When a building is constructed, contractors know things like roofing materials, paint, HVAC equipment, and plumbing fixtures will not last forever, but will need to be maintained.

There are plenty of clever engineers and maintenance people around who can tell us what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how much it is likely to cost.

The problem is not awareness – it is where these things fall on our priority list, if they are on the list at all.

Repairs aren’t sexy, and maintenance isn’t glamorous.

Even if we agree maintenance is essential, it is one of the first areas in many budgets to be cut or re-allocated.

There is nothing wrong with that in the short term. The difficulty arises when it becomes chronic.

If we maintain our infrastructure on a regular basis, the cost will probably be manageable. If, on the other hand, we wait until things are falling apart, it may not be.

We all bear some of the responsibility.

Taxpayers are seriously overburdened, so they put pressure on elected officials to cut costs.

Elected officials don’t want to be associated with tax increases, so in order to get their pet projects approved, they need to cut costs elsewhere, and maintenance budgets are among the things that get the axe.

The difficulty, of course, is that ignoring the problem does not make it go away.

Changing the oil in our cars on a regular basis is a manageable expense.

Ignoring this recommended maintenance until the engine needs to be rebuilt will probably result in an unwelcome bill, and will be more expensive than if we had done the maintenance in the first place.

We don’t seem to learn from history.

Some cities have made the mistake of keeping water and sewer rates low to appease residents.

Unfortunately, if the revenue does not keep pace with expenses, this can lead to problems when repairs or replacement are necessary.

Instead of gradually increasing rates over time, cities are forced to impose double-digit increases just to catch up.

From a taxpayer perspective, it seems it would be much easier to budget small increases than giant ones.

I am cynical enough to suspect, at least in some cases, people might intentionally argue against maintaining what they have, because they would rather have something new and shiny than repair a serviceable, but dated building, or piece of equipment.

I remember back in the dark ages sitting in a college economics class discussing wants versus needs.

I suspect part of our problem, when it comes to maintaining public infrastructure, is that a lot of people are confused about the difference between what they want and what they need.

Whether we are putting off maintenance based on the misguided idea we are saving money, or whether we are kidding ourselves into believing what we want is what we need, it seems we are on the wrong path.

We can’t count on much, but we can be reasonably certain, if we stay on the path we are on, that there will come a time when taxpayers can’t – or won’t – pay any more.

These are complex issues, but it seems taking care of our public infrastructure and being honest about wants versus needs would be common sense.

Unfortunately, sense doesn’t seem very common these days.

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