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View from around the state: Keep current rules on selling water utilities

The Legislature would be wise to put the brakes on a proposal reportedly moving quickly that would make it easier for private companies to buy and operate municipal water systems in Wisconsin.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Pennsylvania-based Aqua America is behind this effort. The firm owns and operates more than 1,400 public water systems and 187 wastewater treatment systems in eight states, the newspaper reported.

The proposal cleared the Assembly last month and now heads to the state Senate.

Having a for-profit company take over a city water system is far different than hiring out garbage pickup, for example. With the latter, the private company owns the trucks and the trash containers. It makes sense that several private operators competing with each other will try hard to provide the best service at the lowest cost to keep and hopefully grow their market share.

But we can’t have multiple companies running our water system. So presumably the only incentive to sell would be to save money because a private company might pay its workers less than the municipality and find other efficiencies to keep water bills low.

As for replacing aging pipes, the current system of municipal ownership requires a competitive bidding process that prevents the public from getting gouged. Presumably a private firm would operate under similar rules.

“Government has a level of accountability to citizens that private companies simply don’t have,” Tom Stolp, deputy director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said recently at a news conference and reported in the Journal Sentinel.

Stolp is right. If something goes afoul with a city’s water supply, accountability rests with local public officials, not business executives beholden to stockholders.

Another concern to skeptics is whether some public officials might be tempted to favor selling the city water operations and then miraculously end up working for the new private company. In other words, officials working out of public view for their own benefit rather than what’s best for their communities.

The Journal Sentinel reports that under current law, the local elected governmental body must vote to approve the sale of its water utility. The proposal then goes to the state Public Service Commission for approval, and finally voters must also give approval in a referendum. So, yes, under current law municipalities can sell their water operations.

This bill would make referendums optional. Citizens would have 60 days to get the signatures of 10 percent of the voters in the municipality to force a referendum.

Bill supporters say the measure would simply enable communities to sell their water operations if they think a private company could do a better job.

A reasonable argument can be made that garbage pickup and perhaps some other services traditionally done by government workers can be done at least as well and maybe better and cheaper by private business. But turning the safety of our water supply over to a company whose headquarters is far away should at the very least require a referendum by those who will have to live with the decision and drink the water.

 — From the Leader-Telegram

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