Opinion and Editorials and Utilities

EDITORIAL: City needs to keep momentum from utilities deal

July 31, 2010

All too often, political posturing gets in the way of progress—or possibilities. Critics line up to oppose a change in public policy not necessarily because it’s a bad idea, but because it originated on the “wrong” side of the political aisle.

We’re happy to see that partisanship didn’t sink Mayor Greg Ballard’s plan to sell Indianapolis’ water and sewer utilities to Citizens Energy Group. Sure, the 19-10 City-County Council vote July 26 largely followed party lines, but it passed nevertheless and now advances to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a final OK.

The deal, announced in March, calls for Citizens to assume $1.5 billion in utility debt and pay the city $425 million in cash in exchange for gaining control of the water and sewer systems. Citizens says it can save $43 million a year by integrating the city utilities with its own gas, steam and chilled-water operations.

Critics have decried the loss of public oversight, warning that water quality and utility rates could suffer. We aren’t buying it.

First, the city has controlled the water utility only since 2002, when then-Mayor Bart Peterson led the effort to acquire it from Merrillville-based NiSource. So it’s not unprecedented to cede municipal ownership.

Then there’s the fact that Citizens isn’t exactly an unknown entity. It has done a commendable job overseeing the city’s natural gas utility for more than 100 years. And it’s a public charitable trust—without shareholders to enrich—that still will have to gain IURC approval for any rate increases.

But the most compelling evidence is the commitment Citizens is making to continue investing in the utilities. In addition to handing over cash and taking on city debt, Citizens must make costly sewer upgrades, and CEO Carey Lykins has said the company also will complete a septic tank replacement program that’s under way.

And let’s not overlook that $425 million—money Ballard has said will be spent to fix sidewalks, improve roads and tear down abandoned homes, improving the city’s economic development prospects. Without the windfall, taxpayers likely would be footing that bill, or more likely, nothing would happen and our infrastructure would continue to crumble.

Council President Ryan Vaughn described the utility transfer as “the most significant step forward for the city since the passage of UniGov.” We won’t argue with that, but we implore city leaders to keep moving in the right direction.

The council vote was a victory, sure, but Ballard’s legacy depends on more than who’s providing the water we drink. Ultimately, the success or failure of the utilities deal is going to boil down to how the money is spent, the tangible difference it makes in our community—not who proposed it.

The so-called RebuildIndy infrastructure-improvement initiative has untold potential. Politics hasn’t gotten in the way so far. Let’s not start now.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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