KC's improved water agency still has far to go
The Kansas City Star
After years of deplorable customer service and failures to upgrade its aging infrastructure, Kansas City’s Water Services Department is making impressive strides to address those major problems.
Employees and private contractors are fixing broken water lines, repairing streets and answering customers’ phone calls much more quickly than just a year ago. This is statistically measurable progress that deserves praise. In addition, technology is being used to speed up fire hydrant repairs and track progress — street by street, project by project.
From Mayor Sly James on down, City Hall is taking seriously the need to strengthen water and sewer services.
It’s about time for the department to be accountable to the public.
For too long Kansas Citians have been downright angry with an agency that took too long to respond to leaking water pipes and left streets in disrepair for months (often covered with vehicle-jarring metal plates). In extreme cases people were without water for days at a time because the agency had ignored its responsibility to take care of its decades-old assets in the ground.
“We punted for too long,” City Manager Troy Schulte acknowledged last week.
The city’s private consultant, former Kansas City Power & Light executive Bill Downey, has shown a dogged determination to change the department’s culture. He prodded City Hall to let the department more quickly handle its own hiring and more efficiently operate its own call center.
“I didn’t want to just prepare a report that would sit on the shelf,” waiting for someone else to decide whether anything would get done, Downey said.
This is a positive story at a crucial time. Residents and businesses are seeing their bills soar as they prepare to pay for multibillion-dollar efforts to repair sewers and water lines.
One sobering fact worth repeating: The average monthly residential sewer bill of $34.47 this year is scheduled to nearly double in five years to $66 a month. The water portion of customers’ monthly bills also will jump, although a bit more slowly.
Big challenges remain.
The department’s $2.5 billion sewer upgrade plan, designed to reduce overflows that pollute area streams, is under way. But there’s nothing written in stone that this much money has to be spent for the cleanup.
Local engineering companies will pressure the city to build huge sewage containment tunnels to handle heavy rains. Still, the city must look for ways to use “green” fixes that can allow water to seep into the ground rather than get swept into the sewer lines during heavy rains. The porous sidewalks being poured in southeast Kansas City are an attempt to see how much help green infrastructure can provide.
The city also must work to keep its sewer customers in Johnson County; they could help pay for the massive overhaul of the system.
Finally, the agency has to be more consistent in offering excellent service to residents.
For instance, the water department has dramatically sliced the rate of “abandoned” calls to its service center. Far too many frustrated people — nearly 50 percent in early 2010 — were hanging up because they were tired of waiting for someone to answer. Still, the rate was higher than the preferred target of 15 percent as recently as August and September of this year. The department should strive for the lowest figure possible, such as the 2.8 percent rate reached in November.
The once-hot talk that a private company would come in to run this public asset has cooled, and correctly so. Department Director Terry Leeds and his agency have the opportunity to build upon recent progress. They must strive to hold down future customer bills while efficiently fixing critical infrastructure that serve hundreds of thousands of people.