Infrastructure: Building a Strong Foundation In San Lorenzo Valley Water District
Imagine you’ve just inherited a big, beautiful old house of your dreams, and while you can’t wait to move in, you know it needs work—the roof leaks, the floors sag, the foundation is cracked. Where do you begin? How much will it cost?
As any builder or project manager knows, the key to success is careful planning, realistic estimates for appropriate budgeting and funding, setting priorities and schedules, tracking, and robust oversight. That’s where experience and skills make the difference-- between a successful, well-run project, or ending up with a disaster.
Our team of Bob Fultz, Lois Henry and Steve Swan bring a strong mix of all the right skills to the district to make progress on our infrastructure upgrade program a success, starting with a firm foundation of money management, and building on experience from there.
It’s urgent that we start smart, and soon.
Since 1997, there has been little progress on capital infrastructure upgrades and replacements in our district, and much of our 70+-year-old system is crumbling. Promises of progress by incumbents from their election in 2014 have not been followed through. Customers of the district were hit with a huge rate increase in 2017, and although meant primarily for capital improvements, we’ve all seen it soaked up by half a million dollars in staffing increases and a steady rise in other overhead expenses. The consequence of not taking action over the past 20 years has come at a high cost for district customers, who will foot the bill. This has been most evident in the three to four-fold increase in project costs in the most recent plan put together by former manager Brian Lee, from the beginning of this year to present.
The district spent the last four years pursuing other priorities, putting infrastructure on the back burner. When this election year rolled around, they quickly voted to approve 13 projects for $5.5 million, not realizing the cost estimates were from 2006, forcing them to reduce it to 5 projects, with a new price tag of $8.5 million – to be financed via a loan. Changes required approval of more money for revised project pre-engineering and expediting the loan application. In August incumbents approved borrowing nearly $10 million, adding another million to pay off interest on an as-yet unsecured bridge loan, encumbering customers to pay interest-on-interest for 40 years under the present USDA loan application proposal.
And, finally, the district has admitted that these 5 USDA loan projects are not necessarily the top priorities, but they are the projects easiest to get through to meet a late August deadline, rather than wait until the next cycle starting shortly before the election.
We are committed to the USDA capital funding project going forward, with no loss of momentum as our very capable staff carries out the plan. To do our job, we will need a comprehensive financial overview of how this affects our budget in the coming years, capital outlay, interest, bridge loan and interest, locked funds as required by lenders, all the details.
SLV Water Candidates Fultz Henry Swan on Infrastructure: Building a Better Plan In San Lorenzo Valley Water District
Everyone agrees work must begin, but under our watch all future CIP projects must meet a much higher standard of strategic and financial planning, if we are to rebuild successfully.
There are presently 75 projects on our Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). These have all been reviewed, ranked, and re-ranked a number of times over the past 20 years, based on health, safety, and cost factors, a constantly shifting target as time passes, new items become a priority, and service areas and systems get added in. It has been an organizational challenge.
To untangle all this, we want to take a proactive and methodical wide-angle look at where our system is today, as a whole, and get an engineered evaluation of what is the best strategy for our CIP program going forward. This will start with identifying and mapping all the components in the SLV water system, which, surprisingly, we don’t have. This inventory would include, for example, pipes: location, length, material, age, replacement/upgrade and cost, and can we improve fire protection by installing hydrants? We will challenge everything we know so far: system conditions, what to fix first, what are our system storage needs, pressure and flow problems, water resources, ability to move water, and integrate it all into an updated plan.
Having an updated and progressive CIP plan in hand, we will then reconstruct the budget from the ground up. Our priority is to look for cost savings, which we will apportion to rate reductions if we calculate it’s possible to maintain the amount of funds necessary for these commitments, and efficiently operate the district.
Our plan is to work for maximum progress on infrastructure improvements over the next five years, prioritizing those items which are at risk for catastrophic failure, or urgent safety requirements like improved fire suppression. We will ask for a concise report on what field staff needs to accelerate improvements and maintenance efficiencies, like fixing the 20% leak rate of processed water. We will bring in outside experts to fill in our lack of internal resources, when staff says they need that help with engineering and planning.
As primary stakeholders in our water system infrastructure, you deserve clear plans and costs, which we will bring you with a community conversation about the best way to finance further upgrades, whether by loans or bonds.
What our team of Fultz, Henry and Swan brings to the district is building a strong foundation by greater emphasis on cost accounting, efficiency, and an engineered analysis of project priorities for both short and long term, a whole new direction for our district’s Capital Improvement Plan. We want our house to be restored well, a place of pride for all of us.