Planning for infrastructure improvements

July 1, 2016

When municipalities started facing the serious economic downturn nearly a decade ago, one of the first places many looked to cut spending was in capital improvement investments, such as local roads and other infrastructure. After all, it's a visible area for financial cuts, yet it's one that ends up coming back to bite communities harder on the other end when roads crumble faster with more potholes, water mains break and sewers backup. As one municipal auditor said during a recent review of Rochester Hills' finances, capital improvements are usually the first place to look and the easiest to hold back. Wisely, Rochester Hills, a city that has planned itself out in the first place, is not falling victim to that shortsightedness.

Cutting back, or slowing down, capital improvement projects during lean years is tempting, but wise municipalities are learning to incorporate these important infrastructure improvements into their long-term budgets. Rochester Hills can particularly be commended for planning capital projects years down the road, updating its plans on an annual basis. The city of Rochester Hills has undertaken the process of revising its capital improvement plan on an annual basis. The latest update, just this past April, included 21 new projects that will be cost shared over five years, from 2017-2022, for a total of $8.9 million. Officials reviewed their total capital improvement list, and removed 17 projects as 12 were completed. Three others were reclassified to pending status, and two deleted from this year's capital improvement plan, having re-prioritized the city's needs. Overall, the plan includes more than $126 million in projects, with a cost of about $87.1 million to the city over the next six years. In the 2017 fiscal year budget, $27.4 million in projects are included. At this time, the forecast is based on maintaining an overall millage rate by the city of 10.4605 mills.

Rochester has begun working with the city's engineers to create a 25-year plan to address its aging infrastructure, from looking at the number of road miles that need reconstruction to looking at bridges, pipes, drinking water sources, streetlights, sidewalks and other infrastructure. In March, during Rochester's State of the City address, mayor Cathy Daldin spoke of city council's focus, which they will begin meeting with staff on this fall, on infrastructure improvements for the future, and city departments have been prioritizing needs. 

Rochester does have an area that we are concerned about, lest they fall into a trap of failing water infrastructure. The city has had a long-standing practice of only charging residential users for water use, which sounds nice and proper, but leaves it without any extra revenue for problems, which always arise, because it has never charged for maintenance, repairs or improvements of the water system. City manager Blaine Wing is also rightly concerned about this practice. He has directed staff to create a report providing recommendations for rectifying this situation. Residents will likely get a shock when rates jump, which they will have to, but it is imperative the city create a system that is self-sufficient, as the city of Flint has sadly shown. Wing has said that improvements cannot be "subsidized by the city's other funds." We agree.

Sanitary and stormwater management is another area of infrastructure that's hardly glamorous, but which touches the daily lives of residents, and proactive planning will put both cities in a good place. Rochester was selected for an $800,000 Stormwater and Wastewater Management (SAW) grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to create and implement a sanitary and stormwater management system in 2015, and their fiscal year 2017 budget includes portions of the grant project. Rochester Hills, which will need additional funding in the city's water resources fund by 2019, is exploring funding options for water resources operations, maintenance and infrastructure improvements.

Infrastructure and capital improvements may not be the most glamorous side of city planning. But, when done well, as in Rochester and Rochester Hills, it's the side that provides quality of life.­

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