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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Hundred-Year Deal

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The only thing worse than a politician without any vision is one who claims to be able to put a price on life over the next 100 years so he can sell it now for a quick buck.

That is no exaggeration of a proposal being considered by Milwaukee politicians. The city comptroller’s office is looking into the possibility of selling control of the city’s water supply to a private company for 99 years for a few paltry hundred million dollars.

We don’t usually refer to $600 million as paltry, but when we’re talking about selling the source of life for the next century, the word seems appropriate.

One thing we know for sure: Any politicians grabbing for those hundreds of millions now will be long gone at least half a century before the true cost of selling this water is ever known.

The proposition takes the bad idea of privatizing government services and super-sizes it.

Ironically, this is being seriously studied in Milwaukee at the exact time long-term privatization schemes around the country have been crashing and burning because of financial problems and outrage from citizens.

Just months after Chicago entered into a $1.2 billion privatization of its 36,000 parking meters, Chicagoans are going after their aldermen with pitchforks and torches because they now have to feed 28 quarters into a meter to park for two hours. A $2.5 billion deal to privatize Chicago’s Midway Airport fell apart in April. Leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike for $12.8 billion was killed in that state’s Legislature because of citizen opposition.

If toll roads and parking meters can be put up for sale—however foolishly— to private companies for billions of dollars, can Milwaukee politicians seriously be considering leasing the most precious commodity on Earth for the next 100 years for far less money?

Origins of a Bad Idea

It’s hard to pin down exactly where the absurd idea of leasing Milwaukee Water Works to a private, profit-making company really originated.

Longtime activists recall Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, proposing such an idea to city officials years ago. The current fall guy is City Comptroller W. Martin “Wally” Morics, who got authorization last October from the Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett to hire private consultants to advise the city on such a scheme.

As was the case when Milwaukee County passed a pension plan that provided six- and seven-figure pensions to county employees including elected officials, the media didn’t pay any attention when studying the idea passed the Common Council.

It was not until the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future and a coalition of union and community groups began organizing opposition that the public even became aware the city was considering such a ridiculous lease.

Jon Keesecker, senior organizer for Food & Water Watch, a national environmental watchdog organization, appeared on my radio show, “Morning Magazine” on WMCS-AM, and in other local forums to sound the alarm.

Since then, Common Council president Willie Hines, who originally supported studying the idea, along with three other aldermen have said the proposal should be put on hold.

Keesecker was the first to inform Milwaukeeans that most of the private consulting firms bidding to become consultants would themselves be paid only if Milwaukee privatized its water. It’s easy to see why consultants being paid a percentage of a $600 million deal would do everything possible to make sure such a sale took place.

It’s much harder to understand why public officials, who are supposed to be looking out for the public, would consider selling off what is not only our most precious natural resource, but also our most precious economic resource.

Over the next 100 years, those of us with access to fresh water will be the haves and those who are not fortunate enough to be situated on the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater source in the world, will be the have-nots.

To understand how politicians could possibly consider selling off the water of life for 100 years, you have to think like a politician, which can be scary. Morics argues that $600 million could be invested and provide $30 million every year to hold down property taxes.

Wanna bet? Does anybody remember the multibillion-dollar settlement every state in the nation received from tobacco companies a few years ago?

Wisconsin’s share was supposed to provide $5.9 billion over 25 years. Instead, Republican Gov. Scott McCallum sold all that money for $1.3 billion upfront. Then he blew the entire amount so he could run for election against Jim Doyle, boasting that he’d held down Wisconsin taxes.

Milwaukee politicians, eager to pose as property tax heroes, could run through a mere $600 million even quicker. Then a private, profit-making company could raise our water rates through the roof every year for the next 100 years.

Comment on this article at www.expressmilwaukee.com.