The New Feudalism

Water rates are going up again, for the eighth year in a row. From the El Paso Times:

El Paso Water rates and fees are going up substantially for an eighth consecutive year, but a proposed water connection fee for outlying areas of El Paso won’t be instituted, the El Paso Public Service Board decided Wednesday.

The PSB, which oversees the city’s water utility, approved increasing rates and fees for its more than 221,000 residential and commercial customers beginning March 1 to support its new $954.2 million budgets for water, sewer and stormwater operations. That includes almost $625 million for new construction and other improvements.

The average El Paso Water residential bill will increase $9.03 per month, or a 13.5% increase. That will raise the average bill to $76.02 per month, not including the city’s trash pickup charges that also are on El Paso Water bills.

Government is only growth industry in El Paso. That’s why the plutocrats are pursuing our tax dollars for their pet projects, and their bank accounts.

In related news, the Public Service Board voted against charging new homeowners on the city’s fringe for the cost of extending utility service out to the hinterlands.

From El Paso Matters:

The El Paso Public Service Board killed a plan on Wednesday that would make new developments pay a greater share of the cost of additional water infrastructure needed to sustain growth.

. . .

The PSB voted 5-1 to delete the proposed fee from Wednesday’s agenda. The board also instructed staff to examine El Paso’s water fee structure and do more public outreach.

Board member Charlie Intebbi cast the sole dissenting vote. Bryan Morris, who had supported the new fee proposal in prior meetings, was absent.

The money raised from the proposed “sustainable infrastructure surcharge” would be used to build new water and wastewater facilities to serve growth areas in the Far West, Far East and Northeast parts of El Paso. The surcharge – $59 a month for most new water customers in the designated areas – would have been a major shift from the long-standing policy of having all water customers share in the costs of new growth.

Even though I’m against sprawl, I couldn’t figure out the PSB’s reasoning at first. Developers are already putting water and sewer lines into those new neighborhoods. So what’s the deal?

Well, water and sewer lines are probably the cheapest part of the water, sewer, and storm water facilities that El Paso Water has to provide. They also have to dig wells and build wastewater treatment facilities for our burgeoning growth on the fringe. And every El Paso Water customer if footing the bill for the expansion of services to those new neighborhoods.

Do you live in an older neighborhood?

(Before COVID, we had an AirBnB room in our house. One time we had an Italian couple staying with us. One of them asked me how old our house was. I puffed out my chest and told her that it was an old house, built in 1925. She said, “We have an old house, too.” “How old is your house,” I asked. “Tenth century,” she told me.)

If you live in an older neighborhood, or even just an existing neighborhood, your utility infrastructure — your water and sewer and electrical lines, and the facilities that make them useful — were already paid for. A house built in 1925, or 1975, or 2005, has already incurred the cost of the water and sewer pipes and overhead electric lines that service your house, and the wells and water treatment facilities and electrical generating stations that make everything work. It’s all paid for. It’s all been paid for, probably for a long time.

Those new developments out there on the fringe (some people call it sprawl) don’t have existing infrastructure that they can plug into. So the utilities are expected to provide them.

And, because shit flows downhill, you, the existing customer, get billed for all that new infrastructure, even though the only benefit you derive from that is the “civic pride” that is reflected onto you by being a member of a “growing community”.

(According to the U.S. Census Bureau, El Paso has not experienced any real population growth since 2012.)

If it were a little more expensive to own a home out there on the fringe of the city, people might instead move to houses in the heart of the city. The school districts might not have to close those underpopulated schools. Public transportation might more practical. The freeways might be less clogged during rush hour.

Developers don’t like infill development. They like bulldozing a multi-acre job site, and knocking out dozens of houses at the same time. Naturally, the developers are against the fee proposed by El Paso Water.

And for most things, if the developers are against it, I’m for it.


  1. There is a systemic bias toward extending new infrastructure rather than maintaining existing infrastructure. If the city invests in new facilities for new properties, it results in some multiple of taxable property, i.e., tax base. There is no such dynamic at work for existing property, like your older neighborhood. All investment does is to maintain existing values. Every growing city faces this problem and the solution is to front-load new properties with connection fees that achieves what you point out. Another solution is to stop development that will result in an immediate increase in overall property values.

    Water facility fees make a lot of sense because you can tie it directly to lines and sewer and wells built to support the new properties. It is much more nebulous when connection fees fund items like fire and police stations, parks and libraries. Texas law requires that there be a direct correspondence to the fees charged and facilities built, otherwise the city has to rebate the fees.

    Generally, the city can’t execute on that kind of plan-to-action granularity. Need I mention San Jacinto Plaza as a recent example. So, developers will continue to socialize the cost of fringe development onto the existing tax base while parroting the line that “development pays for itself.”

  2. Civic Pride? Will El Paso be better if we sprawl to the county line, and top 2 million ihabitants? Going DwnTwn will be quite an odyssey at that point. How about building a better quality of life in the city we have? Oh, but that wouldn’t benefit the deelopers…

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