Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Utilities Sale Is a Mixed Bag

Anything as complex as the sale of Indianapolis' water and sewer utilities will garner mixed reactions. Not exactly a shocking statement. So, here is my take on several aspects of the deal as it is pending before the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council in the form of Prop 197 (see here for supporting documents and here for background documents). By the way, the Utility Transfer Oversight Committee of the Council is scheduled to meet again on July 19 - presumably in the Public Assembly Room, where they will again take public comments. That meeting will begin at 5:30 pm.

The basic outline of the deal is that the City of Indianapolis is transferring the water utility it owns to Citizens Energy for no cash, just the assumption of existing debt, and, it is selling the sewer utility it owns to Citizens Energy for $262.6 million in cash and the assumption of existing debt. Clearly, the sewer utility is the cash cow in this situation.

There have been some key players in crafting the sale, notably Chris Cotterill, the Mayor's Chief of Staff, and Dave Sherman, head of DPW, who I find to be genuinely interested in listening to ideas that can make this deal better in pretty much any aspect, except the core idea of the sale itself and the use of the proceeds for primarily infrastructure improvements. I am pleased to find this sort of openness in government, and I wish there were more folks like them. Now, that doesn't mean I think others who are involved give a hoot what the public thinks or how to improve the deal. Certainly there are some who are only looking to prod the deal in any direction that will send money to companies and outfits with which they are associated. And also certainly, there are those who are only motivated by the resulting humongous slush fund for Republican candidates for Mayor and Council in 2011.

Among the tinkered edges improved by public input, is the inclusion in the sales documents, of a prohibition on Citizens Energy ever selling these two utilities to a for-profit company. Additionally, a strong part of the deal is the first right of refusal if Citizens ever sells the water and sewer utility to a not-for-profit company or entity. Access to properties that is now enjoyed by the public, such as to Geist Reservoir, is to be preserved as well - although perhaps not to the full extent some members of the public would prefer.

Strong arguments that I have heard put forth, that have failed to materialize in the final documents, are water quality standards beyond baseline standards set by the EPA, any oversight on water quality or quantity by local authorities, or any instances of gross negligence under which the City would be able to take back these utilities without the consent of Citizens Energy. One I feel especially fervently about, and which will not see the dark of ink, is a dedication of the money to infrastructure improvements - making legal and binding, all the promises that are being made to the public in order to 'sell the sale'.

Now lets talk about the forbotten topic - should the City sell these utilities? Much is made of the nearly $1 billion in debt owed by the City for the water utility. Many believe that this utility is not managed and operated nearly as well as it should be. This is used to promote a sale. Also used to promote a sale, is some desire to remove 'partisan political governance'. Personally, I don't find any of these issues compelling. The debt is huge - but the ratepayers will still be on the hook for repaying it, regardless of who owns title to the utility. The sales agreement calls for Citizens Energy to honor the existing operating contract with Veolia that are now obligations of the City - so again no change. And lastly, one person's 'partisan political governance' is another person's 'accountability'. You say potato, I say potato. We move the water and sewer utility from services contracted by the City of Indianapolis and its elected officials, to services contracted by Citizens Energy with its self-perpetuating Board accountable to nobody else - not even shareholders.

Nobody talks about mismanagement or onerous debt encumbered by the sewer utility. By all accounts, the City has done a pretty fair, and lately a darned good, job of owning and running the wastewater system. It is under a consent decree with the EPA to make about $2.5 billion worth of improvements to keep sewage from overflowing into our rivers and streams every time it rains (Combined Sewer Overflow remediation). This represents a reduction of $1 billion from an earlier arrangement with the EPA. Everyone I know attributes this reduction in projected cost to the stewardship of Dave Sherman as head of DPW.

It is this reduction in projected cost for CSO remediation that gets garbled up in all the numbers - and I think this garbling is deliberate and unfortunate. The City's PR team wants to sell the public on the idea that Citizens Energy can pay the City $262.6 million in cash for the sewer utility and still keep rates lower than they would have been prior to the $1 billion reduction in projected cost of remediating the CSO problem. I think it is more fulsome to say that the $1 billion in reduction in the projected cost of remediating the CSO problem is fantastic - thank you Dave Sherman. But, the fact that Citizens Energy will have to float a 30 year bond to raise the cash to pay the City, will cause sewer rates to go up in order to repay the principle and interest on the bonds.

This is where the folks who support a simple transfer have a very good point. But, the water company 'sale' pretty much IS a simple transfer of that utility from the City to Citizens Energy. And all the poor management and onerous debt sound like supportive arguments making a case for the transfer. It is the sewer utility sale that is not a transfer, and without any real compelling arguments for the sale - except there is cash to be pulled out of the sewers that will result in higher than absolutely necessary rates for sewer customers. Make no mistake about it, the value of the sewer utility is not in any hard equity built into that system, but is totally contingent upon the fact that Dave Sherman brought projected rates lower than they would have otherwise gone, and the illusion that we somehow can spend that difference like it was equity.

So, now we're on to the topic of cash being obtained from the sewer utility. Just last month the City-County Council approved an increased PILOT from the sewer utility, most of which would be used to secure a 30 year bond to bring roughly $140 million immediately to the City for infrastructure improvements. I attended the Council committee hearing on this matter and something that Councillor Brian Mahern said still rings in my ears. He called it 'monetizing the PILOT payments'. Only, its 'monetizing money'. What they did was to basically take out a loan for $140 million, to spend over the next 2-4 years, and repay more than twice that amount when interest and fees are calculated -- when they could get the same $140 million from the PILOT payments in less than 10 years and have over 20 years of gravy after that. This leads me directly to the conclusion that a major purpose of generating this money is to fund the re-election campaign of Greg Ballard and Republican members of the Council. Otherwise, why be so impatient? Remember, the sewer ratepayers will be paying for 30 years to make infrastructure improvements that will last 10-15 years (and some say even fewer years than that). Why be impatient for the money?

This is the same situation that sewer ratepayers will face when Citizens Energy floats a 30 year bond for the $262.6 million sales price. That $262.6 million may be spent by the City on infrastructure improvements that last 10 -15 years -- but the rates will be elevated for 30 years to repay that money plus interest and fees.

Ratepayers will pay back at least twice the principle of both bonds, and easily more, when interest and fees are considered. So, $800 million to be paid by ratepayers over 30 years for street repairs costing $400 million that will last half that time. This money also eats up any rate savings that Dave Sherman's CSO remediation plan affords the community. Its not savings if you spend it. It is just an expense column adjustment.

On top of all this, there is no guarantee the money will be spent on infrastructure improvements. It is my understanding that the Mayor's office was willing to look at how to dedicate the proceeds of the PILOT and the sewer utility sale, but the Council blocked it. That's not good, in my book. If a Councillor is knee deep in 'selling the sale', then they have an obligation to ink down the promises being made - to protect the community from a bait and switch deal.

This deal is awash in politics - even as anti-politics is said to be a motive for selling the water and sewer utilities. This deal is clearly bad financing (monetizing money) - even as it is being touted as 'clever' financing. And, this deal will leave the sewer ratepayer with around $800,000,000 to pay off, long after the streets that do get repaved are crumbling once again.

I like very much the fact that at least some in City government have been honestly listening to the public. I'm not sure if I could be in favor if the deal was a straight transfer of the water utility only - but quite possibly. But, floating 30 year bonds for $400 million, to be spent on promised infrastructure improvements that will last half that time and leave the ratepayer on the hook for $800 million, strikes me as a generational ponzi scheme that is fiscally irresponsible.


Advance Indiana said...

I have a different view of David Sherman. He's the guy who landed a big job with United Water after working in the Goldsmith administration on the privatization deal for the sewage treatment facilities, only to return to city government to cut some more deals on behalf of B&T's Joe Loftus and Bob Grand. I don't think he gives a damn about what's good for the public. He's in it for himself and his crony buddies who've gotten rich at our expense.

Anonymous said...

I am with AI on his view of David Sherman.

Now, with respect to the so-called savings that should be accruing to ratepayers or provide a cushion to maintain the CSO construction tunnels. Do they think we don't have to maintain them after they are constructed. The ratepayers will be paying off debt for roads, when they realize that there is not enough money budgeted to maintain the large infrastructure improvements. And as for "value engineering," is the really just code for cheap engineering? Remember, the government talking heads always lie; the only question is how big is the lie.