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Opinion: Civic infrastructure critical to community's competitiveness

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A rookie mayor from Livingston, Calif., was booted from office last fall in a landslide recall election. What did Daniel Varela Sr. do to make voters angry enough to boot him out mid-term?

According to a September New York Times story, “He had the temerity to push through the small city’s first water-rate increase in more than a decade to try to fix its aging water system, which he said spewed brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes.”

Now, the good people of Livingston can celebrate two things: having thrown out a “rascal,” and having an aging water system that spews brownish, smelly water from rusty pipes.

Ideas about pruning the tree of liberty flourish these days. Certainly, important conversations need to continue about what services are considered core to a community and what services are not. But let’s take care not to cut off our noses to spite our faces. Not all public spending is bad. A community’s infrastructure is critical to its health and benefits all citizens. The fact is, water systems cost money to build and money to maintain, and as the old saying goes, you don’t get something for nothing.

Most of us have grown up taking for granted roads and bridges, electrical systems, drinking water and waste-water systems. And why wouldn’t we? Roads and bridges abound; we can drive where we want, when we want. Electricity – so precious when first introduced in the late 1800s – is now so common that you find plug-ins at remote camp sites in national parks. Wastes are flushed and immediately forgotten. Water for consumption is so cheap that we think nothing of letting it run while we wash the dishes, or of sprinkling hundreds of gallons of it a week on outdoor plants. A month’s worth of water – literally the elixir of life, without which we cannot live – costs less than taking the family out for a fast food dinner.

America has gone through a huge and wonderful infrastructure development boom during the last century. That growth has been a marvelous success, but we should be realistic as we consider the future. Do we get to live in a house forever without repairing the roof? Do we get to drive a car forever without an oil change? Do we get to enjoy the benefits of our civic infrastructure forever without having to make repairs? No, of course not. Yet some will cheer to hear that a “rascal” was thrown out for daring to raise water rates to pay for infrastructure improvements.

According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, the corridor of counties to Branson from Springfield grew at a rate of 27.14 percent 1990–2000. Our neighbors to the west in the corridor of counties including Joplin and Neosho down to the Missouri/Arkansas border grew at a rate of 16.7 percent during that same decade.

This high level of growth stresses our civic infrastructure. Community leaders in southwest Missouri, whose job it is to look to the horizon and implement steps to reach a successful future, are all facing tough infrastructure challenges. They will need support, not ideological political posturing, when decisions about core infrastructure needs are made.

How we choose to renew our infrastructure systems in the coming years will help determine the quality of our lives and the economic competitiveness of our cities and towns. That doesn’t mean we have to enjoy spending our money on repairs. It means we have to accept that infrastructure maintenance is core to community health and prosperity, and we don’t get to have the services for free. It means having water and electricity and roads is just like having houses and cars. They require upkeep – and it won’t magically happen. We will have to spend our hard-earned money to get the jobs done.

Angry voters in Livingston serve as an example of short-sightedness. When they turn on the tap and find brown, smelly water flowing into their glasses, what then? When kids grow up and move away to other cities and businesses won’t locate there because the community has not maintained its infrastructure, they will have no one but themselves to blame.

Gail Melgren is executive director of the Springfield-based Tri-State Water Resource Coalition. She can be reached at gmelgren@tristatewater.org.[[In-content Ad]]

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