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Infrastructure funding in the age of austerity – just don’t call it a “tax”

17 Jan 2017

As demands for municipal services increase, costs go up and tax revenues flatten or fall, what is a municipality to do?  Most Michigan politicians have decided that even to suggest more taxes is the kiss of death.  Everyone agrees Michigan’s roads need work.  The gas tax went up on January 1 and even that increase was widely viewed as an inadequate to fully improve our sub-par roads. Recently, a Michigan State study indicated that nationally, roughly 12% of households cannot afford the cost of water services and, if water rates rise to cover repair and upgrade expenses due to the aging of our systems and other factors, that unaffordability factor may go up to almost 36% in the next five years.

The Governor’s 2016 Infrastructure Commission, appointed in the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, reported that we need a modern infrastructure system to compete globally, to have economic prosperity, and to have healthy citizens and a healthy environment.  However, the Commission did not answer the all-important question of how to fund all of this work.  The Commission reports that Michigan lags behind every other state in the region in capital funding for infrastructure and that Michigan needs to spend $4 Billion more every year than it currently does just to align with an average state and the State’s needs.  This would be a 7% increase in spending.  The Commission did not address how Michigan should fund this shortfall.

The business group, Business Leaders for Michigan issued a report earlier this month. That Report reached the same conclusion and proposed that the State ramp up its spending and opened a door to creative and novel financing approaches including user fees which the Report indicated may be used to fund costs of “services, enhancements to increase the quality of life, and … administrative and regulatory processes.”  This report discusses such fundraising approaches as: fees per mile traveled (vs gasoline taxes); public-private partnerships; fees based on property value increase; fees which take into account all lifetime system costs; selling or leasing systems to raise funds for new infrastructure improvements; toll roads and other more “outside the box” approaches.

We have seen this before but not on a statewide approach such as when municipal governments try to fund environmental initiatives, such as stormwater management (required by federal law). The cities of Lansing, Jackson and Detroit all adopted stormwater “fees” based on the paved acreage of various properties within their jurisdiction.  Clearly, to the municipalities, this seems like a good idea – otherwise, why would they keep doing it? Reportedly, nine Michigan communities have created stormwater utilities to impose such charges (Adrian, Ann Arbor, Berkley, Chelsea, Harper Woods, Jackson, Marquette, New Baltimore, and St Clair Shores).

The Michigan Supreme Court established a three part test to distinguish between a fee and a tax: (1) “a user fee must serve a regulatory purpose rather than a revenue-raising purpose;” (2) “user fees must be proportionate to the necessary costs of the service;” and (3) “user fees must be voluntary.”  Bolt v Lansing, 459 Mich 152, 161-162 (1998)

Unfortunately for the municipalities, the Michigan Courts keep striking these fees down as illegal, hidden taxes.  In the case of Jackson County v City of Jackson, the plaintiffs challenged a stormwater management charge imposed by the Jackson City Council. The Court of Appeals ruled that the charge was a tax imposed in violation of §31 of the Headlee Amendment to the Michigan Constitution. The court held that the charge: (1) did not serve a regulatory purpose because it shifted funding of certain activities from the general fund to the charge; (2) was disproportionate to the benefits conferred upon the payor as there were no payor-specific benefits; and (3) was not voluntary because there was no way to avoid the charge by doing, or not doing, something.   The Court of Appeals cited Bolt v Lansing, which invalidated a similar stormwater charge on similar bases. Ultimately, both courts held these “charges” to be taxes subject to, and failing to meet, Headlee Amendment requirements.

Last year, the Michigan Legislature saw the introduction of a bill that would authorize such “fees,” regarding water and sewer, ostensibly to make them harder to defeat in Court under the Bolt test. The need is real and I am a big believer in top quality infrastructure which needs to be paid for.  My question is, with the 1978 Headlee Amendment that puts the size and cost of government in the hands of the taxpayers, and with a backdrop of fees rising beyond what some citizens can afford – can and should our Legislature try to pass this off by various “fees” without getting the voters’ approval as well as other “creative” solutions, some of which may cost the taxpayers less in the short run but more in the long run?  I’m all for the efficiencies in purchasing and scheduling that Governor Snyder has been pushing for but, as we watch more and more systems fail (like the recent Fraser sinkhole), it is clear that we cannot continue to push this off – if the citizens see that, they should be willing to pay for it. If these expenses get passed on in the form of fees which are not voted on and the citizenry gets hit with larger fees that they were not told about, who thinks that will play well at the voting booth?

What will 2017 Bring? Dramatic Change?

20 Dec 2016

edit_calendar_ssk_47433454In prior years, we knew that regulatory and environmental change was coming but we expected it to be slow and incremental.  With an unknown quantity like President Elect Trump, one thing is clear – no one really knows what may happen.  Here are a few possibilities:

1.  Coal/Cleaner Energy Generation – revitalizing the coal industry was part of Mr. Trump’s midwest stump speeches.  Will Mr. Trump be able to reverse Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan? What about the Paris Climate Accord?  Certainly, his team is looking at both of those right now. The dispute in Michigan v. EPA, decided in June 2015, continues to rage.  In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that the EPA didn’t properly justify its rule governing mercury and toxic pollution (MATS) from power plants because it did not specifically address costs at the initial stage of the rulemaking process. In April, the EPA announced it was standing by its MATS rule and concluded that the benefits far outweighed the costs.  Petitioners continue to litigate whether the EPA properly evaluated costs.  Here in Michigan, new legislation has been passed (and is awaiting the Governor’s signature) intended to encourage additional investment in energy generation and transmission while balancing consumer choice and a greater percentage of renewable energy generation.  Will it work? At a reasonable cost?

2. Power Generation Subsidies/Oil/Gas Generation – Mr. Trump’s attacks on “crony capitalism” would seem to mean that he will stop financial incentives for solar and wind generation.  Will he also attack oil and natural gas supports in the tax code?  Will he open up ANWAR to oil/gas exploration?  Will he scale back attempts to regulate fracking?  This will be difficult in light of the December EPA Report  which concluded that fracking posed problems such as:  fracking water withdrawals compete with other water needs; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and chemicals or produced water may impair groundwater resources; injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into wells may allow gases or liquids to move to groundwater resources; discharge of inadequately treated hydraulic fracturing wastewater to surface water resources; and contamination of groundwater due to disposal or storage of fracturing wastewater.

3. Pipelines – will Mr. Trump reverse the Obama administration’s dim view of oil and gas pipelines such as the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines?  How will this affect Michigan where public awareness of two 60+ year-old pipelines under the Mackinac Straits has galvanized both sides of the political spectrum into action.  In 2014, Michigan convened a pipeline task force which issued a report in 2015.  In September, 2015, the State entered into a written agreement with Enbridge to prevent the transport of heavy crude oil through the Straits Pipelines.  The task force also recommended that the pipelines be independently evaluated and that additional financial assurance be provided.  The State solicited Requests for Information and Proposals (RFPs) and Enbridge agreed to pay $3.6 Million for the evaluation of the Straits Pipelines.  An independent evaluation of alternatives to the Line 5 pipelines is also underway.  When those will be completed is not known.

4. Infrastructure – Mr. Trump campaigned on infrastructure (although to hear him tell it, that only encompasses airport quality), and Governor Snyder appointed a 21st Century Infrastructure Task Force which concluded that the State needed to be investing $4 Billion more than it was in infrastructure to address roads, bridges, internet, water, sewer and other infrastructure needs.  Given the recent nationally publicized Flint Water debacle, will Michigan find the intestinal fortitude to fully invest in infrastructure or will we continue to patch and delay?  Given the State’s recent fight against a federal judge’s order to deliver clean water, and Michigan legislators “default anti-tax setting,” the future does not bode well.

5. Brownfields – as previously reported, Michigan adopted legislation streamlining its brownfield funding laws and deferred action on Dan Gilbert’s “transformational” brownfield funding legislation.  Will that resurface in early 2017?  I expect it will.

6. Other issues – there are a number of other issues on the horizon including cleanup standards, the maturing of the Great Lakes Water Authority and its ability to deliver clean water and septic services at a reasonable price, Michigan’s effort to reimagine its solid waste program, water withdrawals and protection of the Great Lakes from invasive species and nutrients leading to algal blooms.

Climate change and infrastructure

27 May 2014

bumperstickerAfter that 100 year winter we just came out of, and the potholes it left behind, everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure.  Even the Michigan Legislature and Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to support road and bridge repairs.  While potholes are annoying, sinkholes and bridge failures can be some pretty serious stuff, as has been recently reported.   President Obama has also spoken recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and reports of major antarctic melting.  Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. We all know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials which will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Stronger and lower maintenance bridge design;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures and stronger storm events threaten roads and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce.  A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • increased demands for electricity;
  • greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines, water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world.  I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after many decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right the first time.  If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow.

Climate change adaptation; don’t put all your bananas in one basket

28 Apr 2014

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Perhaps a thing of the past?

Climate change seems to be in the press pretty much all the time these days.  There are stories about the UN reports on climate change (see also here); the President has a two-pronged plan (attack causes of climate change and harden systems against climate events) and, recently, the President requested $1 Billion in the 2015 Budget to support developing climate-resilient infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, a report prepared for the United Nations suggested that as the climate changed, three of the world’s biggest staple crops — corn, rice and wheat — would decrease in many developing countries, and the potato, which grows best in cooler climates, could also be affected by warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns.  The report suggested that bananas could replace potatoes in a warming world as a critical food source.

Unfortunately, now there are reports that the Cavendish banana that most of us buy at the grocery store is under threat of a seemingly unstoppable fungus.   You might say that this is alarmist non-sense and an entire fruit couldn’t be wiped out.  However, you’d be wrong – it happened with an earlier variety of banana called the Gros Michel which virtually no American under the age of 50 has ever eaten.  These bananas were reportedly in every way superior to the ones we eat today but were largely wiped out by a fungus similar to the one that is now ravaging the Cavendish variety.  This is an example of the risk of  cultivating only one type of fruit or vegetable – the same sort of mass production technique that led to the potato blight and famine in Ireland.

Of course, the best method to adapt and become resilient to climate change (although not the most economical) is to diversify – something we Americans have become less inclined to do when it comes to our desire for predictable and consistent groceries.  Will the fruit companies win the fight against the fungus? Will we replace the Cavendish with a new single type of banana (there are still hundreds of varieties mostly unknown to the United States)?  Will we find something else to grow instead of corn, wheat, rice and potatoes? Perhaps the much touted but less well known superfoods of quinoa, freekeh, or teff?  Time will tell, but one thing seems certain, greater diversity leads to greater resilience.  This is something that no environmental law or regulation is likely to fully address.

Change is hard – with great technology comes great upheaval

23 Apr 2014

carcharger

For the last 60 – 70 years, we have lived in an era of significant stability.  That seems to be over.  We’ve all seen how the internet has changed certain businesses (music, newspapers and bookstores).  Technology can be a huge boon but it can be quite disruptive.

The transition from gasoline to electric or hybrid vehicles has been somewhat bumpy as governing bodies struggle with whether dealerships are required and how to pay for roads when less (or no) gasoline will be used.  This is a growing issue as more electric and hybrid vehicles take to the road and as the condition of our Michigan roads continues to cry out for repairs.

As I’ve blogged about before, recent rhetoric suggests that Oakland and Macomb Counties may declare their independence from the DWSD.  With both counties now spending money to evaluate their options, what happens next is less clear. Given that DWSD has apparently not set its rates high enough to cover all the infrastructure improvements needed over the next 5 – 10 years, it is possible (although perhaps unlikely) that a Macomb-Oakland system might actually cost less to develop, construct and operate than the DWSD system.  Such a separation could lead the DWSD to owning over-sized water and waste treatment systems relative to their customer base and the oldest waste and water lines which are likely most in need of repair.  Given DWSD’s well publicized collection issues, this has to be making the investment community nervous as reflected in two investment firms’ recent subpoenas.  This much turmoil would seem to make the DWSD’s recent RFP less appealing than usual.

as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess

Finally (for the moment), we have seen many advances in the development of solar energy – some of which we’ve discussed on this blog – while those are exciting, they, like changes to gas driven cars and changes to 100+ years of centralized water and sewer systems, challenge the status quo.  For over 75 years, utilities have generated and supplied the electricity and natural gas that we consume in our homes and businesses from centralized points. As part of the deal, those same utilities have maintained the infrastructure needed to both generate and transmit gas and electricity.  So, what happens when people can start generating electricity on their own roofs?  Some hail it as a triple win (saving money, the environment and societal benefits) but most solar generators stay “on the grid” and as a result sometimes are contributing electricity to the grid and other times are drawing on the grid.  Under most systems, including Michigan’s, smaller generators can sell their electricity back to the grid at the utility’s retail price – so called “net metering.”

The ability to sell excess power back at the retail -not wholesale- price, raises the question of who pays for the infrastructure necessary to provide the electricity to those on the grid.  Utilities argue that those installing solar are not paying their “fair share” of such costs.  There are those who say that the price of electric service includes roughly 50% for non-generation expenses.  Some experts argue that there is no such “cost-shifting” occurring because there are savings on power plants, transmissions lines, lost energy as well as the ability to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals without utilities having to make the capital investment.  This is a tough debate and is not something easily reduced to 60 second soundbites and at present is being decided on a state by state basis.

Ultimately, the challenge of existing infrastructure combined with legacy costs makes the transition in technology and improving efficiency much harder and far more political than a “free market” would prefer.  But, as with prior technical revolutions, change tends to be messy and the larger the change, the greater the mess.

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

EPA issues its new year’s resolution – ASTM 1527-13

31 Dec 2013

epa_logoAs you know, at Halloween, EPA gave us a “trick” by withdrawing its proposed rule adopting the new ASTM all appropriate inquiry standard.  As you may remember, EPA proposed to leave the old, 2005 standard in place and also allow the use of the new 2013 standard.  This caused some confusion and angst and resulted in EPA’s October 31st action.

Well, as we get ready to start 2014,on December 30th, EPA published an announcement that it was immediately adopting the 2013 standard as satisfying the Federal All Appropriate Inquiry “safe harbor” protecting a new owner, tenant or foreclosing lender from Superfund liability.    EPA kept its “two track” approach of recognizing both the 2005 and 2013 standards as acceptable but repeatedly asserted that it encouraged and anticipated that environmental professionals would “embrace the increased level of rigor” of the 2013 standard and that it intended to publish a proposed rule to remove references to the 2005 standard but wasn’t doing that just yet.  Most interestingly, EPA stated that if it determines in the future that the enhanced standards of the 2013 standard are not being widely adopted, EPA may examine the need to explicitly require the actions specified in the 2013 standard.  With threats like that, it seems likely that the 2013 standard will become de rigueur.