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Houston's public works director has admitted that the city faces a looming crisis because it has neglected its $6.6 billion water and sewer system, spending only one-fifth of the necessary money to replace crumbling pipes and plants.
"We have pipes that are almost nothing but patches," said Jon C. Vanden Bosch, who took over the beleaguered Public Works and Engineering Department in February. "I can't tell you it's going to fall apart next year, but some year we're going to pay the piper."
The city has spent $60,000 a year on pipe and plant replacement for the past five or six years when it should have been spending $300,000 a year, Vanden Bosch told City Council at the presentation of his department's proposed $427 million budget. The total cost to replace the system is about $9 billion, he said.
The spending increases Vanden Bosch says are necessary will not start next year. Mayor Lee Brown told all city departments except police and fire to slash their budgets by 3 percent because of lower-than-expected revenues and increased expenses such as a police raise and putting four firefighters on each truck.
Vanden Bosch's remarks contrasted with those of his predecessor. Former Director Tom Rolen blamed a hot, dry summer and a cold winter for a rash of water and sewer main breaks that plagued the city in the past two years. Rolen said it was not financially possible to replace the aging pipes, so he advocated patch jobs.
The city has about 14,000 miles of water and sewer pipes, some of which date to the early 1900s.
Vanden Bosch said Monday it is imperative that the city starts shifting its focus from building new infrastructure to replacing the old. Pressed by council, he also acknowledged that a water and sewer rate increase will be needed.
"You have to generate more money, so eventually you have to raise the rates," he said.
Council members were not surprised by the gloomy news.
"You're trying to maintain something that has completely fallen apart," Councilwoman Ada Edwards said. "It's just collapsing."
Councilman Bruce Tatro blasted Brown for siphoning millions of dollars from water and sewer fees for the "any lawful purpose fund," which has gone to everything from school-zone beacons to Fire Department vehicles. With the fund completely tapped, Brown recently proposed putting a stop to the practice of using water and sewer money for other projects.
"We've spent money fast and loose," Tatro said. "Any hiccup in the water and sewer infrastructure of this city may require a rate increase."
Another victim of budget cuts in Public Works is the street-cutting ordinance passed in 2000 to try to regulate utility and telecommunications companies that rip up city streets to lay cable. Vanden Bosch said he needs five more inspectors to enforce the law and that, since he cannot afford to hire them, he is proposing forgoing a final inspection and taking project engineers at their word that the streets were repaired.
Vanden Bosch has cleaned house in his department, reducing the number of deputy directors from eight to five. One division, Neighborhood Protection, is moving to the Planning and Development Department.
Council members praised the reorganization.
"I feel like the department's in good hands," Councilwoman Annise Parker said. "There's been a major shake-up over there."