Fox Point neighbors spent the late Winter learning about Mayor Elorza’s proposal to privatize the City’s water, first by hearing arguments from a local advocacy group and then by attending the Mayor’s Community Conversations to hear his ideas and ask questions.
Gillian Kiley, of the Land & Water Sovereignty Campaign, described the privatization issue with neighbors at our FPNA March meeting (pictured above), offering background on the current public system and describing state-level “enabling” legislation then on the table to allow the city to lease our water supply to a private vendor. Mayor Elorza has proposed water privatization each year for the past three years, Kiley explained, in order to pay for the City’s $1 billion unfunded pension liability—and has been met with opposition each time. “Treating water as a commodity for profit is morally very troublesome,” she said, giving examples of cities across the country that have privatized their water but suffered losses, both financial and otherwise. “There are decades of research showing this idea doesn’t work.” Kiley listed the following potential downsides of this plan: environmental damage and watershed issues that might occur as a result of lack of regulation; possible rate hikes imposed on customers by a private corporation in order to pay for infrastructure and make a profit; resultant social costs on the city’s most vulnerable residents who cannot afford to pay the increased rates; labor issues as for-profit corporations typically don’t work with unions; and finally, the issue of water safety as unregulated corporations may choose to cut corners.
Meanwhile, representatives of Mayor Elorza’s administration described the water lease idea to East Siders at a community meeting in late March (in addition to other locations), saying that the administration intends to design a privatization agreement that prioritizes water safety, protects union employees, and ensures stable rates. Given that the city's true financial crisis is ten years away, they said, the administration is in a better bargaining position than the other cities in the US that have traveled down this path.
East Side neighbors asked pointed questions of the Mayor, several expressing outright opposition to the proposal. “What you say assumes that the vendors are good actors,” stated one resident, “when they are not good actors.” Another resident expressed dismay that the administration would propose jeopardizing a precious commodity given the context of devastating climate change. “When you put the water supply at risk to a for-profit company,” she added, “why do you think they are going to behave differently than they ever have?”
FPNA was relieved to learn that the Mayor withdrew his water-leasing proposal in early April. While the City’s long-term financial shortfalls must be addressed, we believe that water safety and security are paramount.