The Houston Chronicle
June 04, 2002, Tuesday 3 STAR EDITION
Houston's public works director admitted Monday 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. That leaves Vanden
Bosch once again spending $ 60 million a year on pipe and plant
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
start 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
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 of whom
will function as chief of staff. 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