Selling the Sewers: The Sweet Smell of Success
Officials for the city of Arnold, Mo., are studying the possibility of privatizing the city’s sewer system. This would be a positive development for several reasons.
First, the city could raise a large amount of money through the sale of its sewer system — possibly millions of dollars. This could be used to pay down debt, invest in needed public services, or lower taxes. The city of Florissant used the revenue from the 2002 sale of its water utility to finance several public improvements and establish a $10 million reserve fund.
Second, privatization would turn the sewers into a taxable asset. This means additional revenue for the municipality, possibly easing the tax burden on existing residents and businesses.
Third, privatization often results in lower costs, higher efficiency, and better service. For instance, Oklahoma City partnered with Veolia Water for wastewater treatment in 1984, and by 2001 had reduced treatment plant costs from $14 million to $11 million dollars. As long as efficiency gains such as those in Oklahoma City are passed on to consumers, lower costs can lead to customer savings. And although government regulations tend to erode efficiency gains over time, the immediate benefits should not be ignored.
Make no mistake: Arnold’s wastewater system is aged and in need of extensive overhaul and repair. Privatization will not change that. Over the next few years, a significant portion of the sewer system will reach the end of its usable life. When this happens, significant costs will be incurred to renovate the system. These costs will occur whether or not the sewer system is privatized, but privatization could help keep renovation costs as low as possible. Sewer user-fees have gone up twice in the last three years – and that is with government ownership of the system.
Private utility ownership is common throughout Missouri. In neighboring Saint Louis County, almost every resident purchases water, gas, and electricity from private companies. Although sewer privatization is less common, it is not unheard of; Missouri American Water, for instance, has several thousand sewer system customers throughout the state.
The possibility of public repossession of the sewer system is an important option to remember. In the sale contract, Arnold can reserve the right to take the sewers back if certain standards are not met. Such a provision can protect residents from the danger of quality degradation and monopolistic fees. Another protection is the Missouri Public Service Commission, which regulates fees charged by private utility companies.
Arnold’s privatization option appears to be an opportunity for comparatively lower sewer rates and additional city revenue. The city will have more money, sewer costs will be handled more efficiently, and any concern about the quality and price of service can be addressed in the sale contract. Selling the sewers appears to be a situation where both the government and the people it serves can benefit.
Bruce Stahl is a research assistant at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.