Las Vegas Sun

May 29, 2015

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Sun Editorial:

Paying our own way

Water Authority’s rate increase an example for the rest of the state

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The Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plans to raise rates have run into some criticism, which is no surprise. After all, who wants to pay more? Under the leading proposal, homeowners would see their bills increase by $5 a month, and business rates would go up significantly more.

The increase would be in the form of a surcharge that would be added to users’ bills and the money would go toward paying off the authority’s construction projects, including the building of the third intake at Lake Mead. The authority is holding three meetings this week to discuss the plans, and there will undoubtedly be concerns and complaints over the rate increase. (As well, some critics will use this as a chance to attack the authority’s long-term plans to draw water from rural Nevada, even though that is a separate issue.)

It should be noted that even with the surcharge, water rates in Southern Nevada would be below average in the West. But there is a larger issue that shouldn’t be missed: The plan wisely changes the way the authority funds its operations, moving from the boom-and-bust growth cycle. There is a lesson in this for Nevada.

For years, the authority and governments across the state have operated under the premise that growth would pay the tab. Modern Southern Nevada was essentially created on the wallets of future generations.

As growth boomed — and roads, schools, water systems and other infrastructure projects were built — many expenses were pushed into the future. New residents and businesses, along with tourists and visitors, would pick up the tab, or at least a substantial portion of it.

That seemed to work just fine for many Nevadans because it lessened the financial burden in the short-term; again, who wants to see rates increase? Pat Mulroy, the Water Authority general manager, said Southern Nevada’s water rates have been lower than average among Western states because the growth here helped offset the costs.

However, since the recession, the torrid pace of growth that brought a stream of income to government agencies is just a memory and Nevada can’t bank on runaway growth to pay the bills anymore.

In political circles, that reality is painful because growth has long been a convenient panacea, warding off tax increases and other difficult issues. For years, politicians have avoided tough decisions because the economy always seemed to grow just enough so there was rarely a sense of urgency in dealing with the state’s underlying problems. There were plenty of pledges to deal with the problems in the future, but the future time never seemed to arrive.

That can’t be the way Nevada deals with things anymore. Without the hope of a resurgent boom, the state should be compelled to take responsibility, deal with its problems and find a way to do things like pay for infrastructure.

In the Water Authority’s case, no one wants to see a rate increase — it’s never pleasant and the fact that it comes during a sour economy makes it all the more distasteful. However, it is the fiscally sound thing to do. It will put the authority on more stable financial footing, and more than that, it sends a signal that Southern Nevadans are willing to pay their fair share — and prepare for their own future.

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