Fixing streets and leaky pipes has to be a top priority

A dramatic rise in city water and sewer rates is tough to take right now. Other options for funding must be explored.

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It's obvious to anybody who has driven around Walla Walla that the streets are desperately in need of repair.

Beneath those roads the situation might be worse. The pipes that carry our water supply are old and failing. The sewer pipes are bad, too.

It's estimated that the city is losing 1 billion gallons of clean, drinkable water every year because the underground pipes are broken or too small.

The city must take action to fix the roads and the water system. But how do we -- the taxpayers -- pay for all that?

That's a question that's vexed the City Council and city officials for decades. Serious attempts to overhaul a large number of streets through selling bonds have been stymied. A few projects boosted by matching federal or state dollars have taken place over the years but, for the most part, the effort has been piecemeal.

And less has been done about the underground pipes. But earlier this year city officials outlined an ambitious plan to replace the underground pipes and fix the roads in the process.

It makes sense given that the streets have to be torn up to get to those pipes.

But what didn't set well with many taxpayers is the potential cost. It was suggested that sewer and water rates be increased up 50 percent over the next six years, including a 14 percent increase in 2010. That's too much too fast.

The higher fees and the impact they would have on citizens has prompted City Manager Nabiel Shawa, who has only been on the job since October, to look for a different approach.

"I want to take it to the service clubs, have open houses and get businesses and people's recommendations," Shawa said recently.

Shawa is reviewing cost estimates with the idea of reducing the rate increase for the first two years in the hope that other funding options can be found.

"There is no easy fix. And the picture that has been fixed for me is that it is now reaching a critical phase, and we cannot stand back and expect a future generation to take care of this problem," Shawa said.

Shawa's right, there is no easy fix. He's also correct that other options have to be explored. Reaching out to the community for suggestions is a solid approach.

City government is limited on the approaches it can take, but working with citizens and trying to build a consensus is always good government.

This process is off to a solid start as linking street improvement with pipe replacement is an efficient way to tackle two serious problems with one solution.

When Shawa gets his road show -- make that the lousy-road-and-cracked-pipe show -- up and going, take the time to offer your views. It's going to take innovative thinking and a lot of cash to get the job done right.

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