Cloer

Interim City Manager Leslie Cloer 

To rebuild Palestine's dangerously aging water mains and pipes, city council members this month declared local water rates – now among the state's lowest – must go up.

In raising public money for even the most worthwhile projects, however, city officials have a problem: Taxpayers and residents don't trust them.

Until the city narrows the credibility gap between government and the people, residents will continue to oppose sorely needed water-rate increases, or other taxes and user fees to make critical infrastructure repairs.

City council members witnessed the community's mistrust during a public hearing Monday night

Residents hosed recently approved water-rate increases of up to 80 percent, which will raise another $2 million for rebuilding water mains, pipes, and other parts of the city's water system.

“How do we know the money will go for infrastructure?” long-time resident Gail Dressell, 72, asked council members. “This town doesn't have a budget – it never has. It has a Ponzi scheme.”

City government has mismanaged, misspent, and wasted millions of dollars in the last decade, while shuffling money from fund to fund, and circumventing city purchasing policies. Palestine's last two city managers – Michael Hornes and Mike Alexander – shoulder much of the blame.

The city's new leadership team, including Finance Director Jim Mahoney – a straight-talking Leatherneck – and no-nonsense interim City Manager Leslie Cloer are cleaning house at City Hall, imposing overdue discipline on accounting and spending practices.

Effective Oct. 1, water rates for the average Palestine household, using 5,000 gallons a month, will rise 56 percent.

Base water rates – applying to up to 2,000 gallons a month – will go up only 15 percent, from $6.30 to $7.25 a month. After the first 2,000 gallons, however, water rates will rise to $6.66 per 1,000 gallons, an increase of 80 percent.

To further ease the burden on low-income households, who have little time to adjust their tight budgets, the city should consider extending the discounted base-rate up to 5,000 gallons a month.

Either way, however, the city needs the money. Mahoney has identified $34 million of water infrastructure projects for completion by the end of 2025.

A lot is at stake. The city's 12-mile pipe – 42 inches in diameter – stretching from the river to the waste water treatment plan is 50 years old, with design specs of 40 years.

Problems with that pipe could disrupt water delivery for weeks. “It's scary to think about,” former Councilman Will Brule told the Herald-Press.

To maintain support for rebuilding the water system, the city ought to post its long-term plan on a designated spot on the city web site. “Rebuilding Palestine” would include the costs to fix the water system, necessary projects with scheduled start-dates, and up-to-date information and videos about current projects that account for every penny.

It's called transparency.

City officials can't secure the money to rebuild Palestine without first restoring public confidence in local government.