Thursday, November 02, 2006

Fayette County Voters: Just Say "No" To Condemnation

One of the most important elections in Kentucky next week takes place in only one county.

It's not a choice between candidates, however. It's the vote on whether to allow the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government to pursue condemnation of Kentucky American Water Co.

The water company condemnation issue has been ongoing for several years now, and it's now on the ballot for Fayette County voters.

Those voters should vote against condemnation -- and thus vote "no" on the ballot issue -- for several reasons.

While it is true that most Kentucky municipalities or other public agencies own their own water companies, for some reason Lexington made the decision years ago to place the water works in the hands of private enterprise. That private enterprise has done an excellent, consistent job of supplying clean water to Lexington residents as well as some inhabitants of nearby towns and counties. The state's eminent domain statute was written to allow the public to take over such a corporate-owned utility if said utility's service was ever called into question.

Such has not been the case with Kentucky American. There has been no drop in the level of service that would require a public takeover.

No question, there's been a bit of xenophobia involved with this issue. "German-owned" is a phrase that's been uttered way too often during this whole controversy. Who can forget the crazy woman who called into Dave Baker's talk show, claiming that the Germans were draining Lake Cumberland? Those who are decrying "foreign ownership of water" need to be forcefully reminded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Commonwealth of Kentucky still own the water.

Condeming the water company sets a bad precedent. What's next? Should the voters of Fayette County take over Kentucky Utilities? After all, the local power company is also owned by a European conglomerate (E.On/Powergen). What about Columbia Gas? Alltel (or whatever the phone company calls itself these days)? Insight Cable? If the local government involuntarily takes over the water company, why not the rest of the public utilities?

Plus, there's the issue of Kentucky American's service area. Even though only Fayette County voters get to decide, what about the customers in the other nearby communities served by Kentucky American? At least now under the current setup, they have recourse through the Kentucky Public Service Commission, which regulates Kentucky American. If the Fayette County government takes over ownership, PSC oversight will disappear.

In Owen County, the local government and water districts actually sold their water systems to Kentucky American because they realized the private company could maintain the water distribution system better than the government could. Are those people going to enjoy having Lexington control their water company? And will the Lexington bureaucrats even care if a water main breaks somewhere out on Route 227 near Wheatley or New Liberty?

This is not to say that Kentucky American has done things perfectly. You frequently read about a "water supply deficit" in the Bluegrass, especially after a dry summer. The truth is that there is not a water supply deficit. There is, always has been and always will be plenty of water in the Kentucky River and tributaries to supply the needs of Central Kentucky. What does exist is a water treatment capacity issue. Kentucky American has been reluctant to spend the money required to ensure adequate treatment capacity for periods of high demand. Instead they go running to the Urban County Council for lawn-watering restrictions or to the state's Kentucky River Authority for water withdrawal fees to raise the heights of the dams, instead of building another treatment plant in another pool of the river. And when the company has made an attempt to address treatment capacity issues, such as when it proposed building a pipeline to bring treated water from the Ohio River to the Bluegrass region, the NIMBYs (people who proclaim "Not In My Back Yard" to any proposed public project) squealed like stuck pigs.
Kentucky American needs to make a serious effort to upgrade its treatment infrastructure to deal with peak capacities, instead of seeking refuge in the arms of the government (read: taxpayers) at nearly every opportunity. When we are dry from summer solstice to autumnal equinox, yet every lawn in Lexington is green and glistening with droplets from sprinklers without restrictions, then we'll know the company has acted appropriately to solve the problem.

But the main issue with this proposed condemnation, besides the legitimate question of how well the Lexington-Fayette government could run the hijacked company, is the bad precedent it sets, both for the other utilities and for the water customers in other counties.

That's why a "no" vote on condemnation is the best possible vote for all concerned.

If you live in Fayette County, be sure to vote "no" on the ballot question. Preserve the institution of private enterprise and just say "no" to unnecessary condemnation.

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