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Amsterdam, NY ,



Heed it now or hear it later

Thursday, January 03, 2013 - Updated: 6:09 PM

Here it comes, New York, another warning about how much money we don't have. Another detailed analysis, this time from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, of the bills that need to be paid, and the fact that we don't have the dollars to pay them.

But this time the gap between what state and local governments can afford and what they must address is far more serious than the dilemma we often hear about, of solving our fiscal problems now or leaving them, altogether more severe, for the years or even generations to come.

Now we're talking about maintaining clean drinking water, treating sewage, and keeping roads and bridges from crumbling. New York needs to find a much better way to bear the cost of its fixing its crumbling infrastructure, DiNapoli says, or face stark consequences.

If a state comptroller's report can ever be compelling, this is it. The otherwise dreary topic of sound fiscal policy hits home, particularly in light of the brutal damage brought first by Tropical Storm Irene and then by Superstorm Sandy.

Here are the numbers from the DiNapoli report: Based on current trends, governments in the state will have $161 billion to pay for public infrastructure projects in the next 20 years. But the accumulated cost of the necessary improvements and repairs will come to at least $250 billion.

And that $250 billion doesn't take into account Superstorm Sandy repairs, or new infrastructure to combat future storm effects, nor the needs of the state Thruway Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It includes $175 billion to meet the demands on the rest of the state's transportation systems, $39 billion to protect its drinking water, and $36 billion to maintain its municipal wastewater systems.

DiNapoli says that a bad situation -- because of a combination of neglect, rising maintenance costs and a lack of available funds -- is quite likely to get worse, thanks to the accumulated deterioration and necessary repairs that can be attributed to two storms of historic proportions.

So, what should New York do?

Everything that state and local governments should have been doing all along yet didn't.

"We need to enact real and meaningful reform of how we prioritize and fund public infrastructure projects," DiNapoli says. "It won't be easy, but now, more than ever, we must do this right."

Hear those four daunting words: won't, easy, now and right.

Federal help -- to the unprecedented degree sought by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and our U.S. senators -- is of course critical to fend off what comes to a looming $89 billion deficit. But so are what might well strike local government officials as genuinely radical changes in fiscal policy at the municipal level. They begin with the sort of government consolidation that people on local public payrolls have so long resisted.

Municipalities should merge their mechanisms for obtaining public financing. The revolving loan fund operated by the Environmental Facilities Corp. can be a model. It could mean access to necessary capital at little or no cost.

Local governments should similarly combine forces for investment in their collective infrastructure. What are known as economies of scale really do save money. Consolidation also makes local governments better able to manage complex building projects and allows them to avoid costly duplication of efforts.

So here's the choice, New York. Heed the warning now, or hear it yet again under likely more dire circumstances. The next natural disaster may come much sooner than we would expect, and with even graver consequences on a decaying infrastructure.

-- The Times Union of Albany


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