Deferred maintenance is expensive

When local governments run short of money, as so often they do, one of the easiest budget items to cut is infrastructure maintenance. After all, the pavements and park greenery could still be fixed next year, so not many voters will care or even notice that routine upkeep has been skimped yet again. Maintenance cutbacks are politically much safer than discontinuing some popular service program.

But withholding or redirecting funds needed for consistent maintenance of basic local infrastructure is a risky proposition. Especially as aging facilities approach the end of their normal life expectancy, they become likelier to fail and cause significant public damages that open the door for lawsuits. Additionally, longtime deferral of needed maintenance invariably translates sooner or later into much costlier major repairs and modernization.

San Francisco and San Mateo counties have both been hit by this cycle more than once. Most famously, The City’s decades of diverting funds for more visible purposes, instead of spending on necessary upkeep of the aging Hetch Hetchy regional water system, has resulted in a $4.3 billion renovation program being largely paid by client water districts throughout the Bay Area.

And just last week a Superior Court judge ruled that The City is liable for sewer overflow damage to at least 30 properties following massive storm flooding in February 2004. Estimated cost to taxpayers will be more than $3 million. Much of San Francisco’s 1,000 miles of brick sewers were built in the 19th century. Flushed waste spurted up through sinks and toilets and was carried into buildings during the February 2004 rainstorms that overwhelmed old sewage/stormwater channels.

In 2005, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission launched a 30-year sewer-improvement project that has already invested substantially to prevent future flooding in the low-lying Mission Terrace neighborhood, where much of the worst 2004 flooding was concentrated. This is good news, and the SFPUC must not drop the ball when it votes this month on continuing the next phase of this vital sewer-rehabilitation program.

Meanwhile in San Mateo County, the watchdog civil grand jury has just castigated the municipal owners of 19 local dams for failing to meet a March 31 deadline to prepare coordinated emergency plans. The county’s Emergency Services Council said planning for responses to flash flooding caused by dam failure in heavily populated areas had to be delayed due to lack of funds.

Applications for state and federal grants were rejected, and the council had no dam emergency planning budget. With eight of the Peninsula’s dams rated “high-risk” by the Army Corps of Engineers, it would behoove local authorities to treat dam failure as a higher priority before they too, like San Francisco, are ordered by the Superior Court to pay costly flash-flooding damages.

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