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Shortchanged

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What can happen when you rob Peter to pay Paul? Well, if Peter is in charge of the sewage treatment plant, then plenty--most of which is exceedingly unpleasant.

This has been a banner couple of years for municipal sewage spills, and that's saying something considering this state has long been plagued with such things. But mega-spills--millions of gallons of untreated sewage--have flowed from plants in Durham, Cary, Wilmington and Charlotte, and spills in the tens of thousands of gallons are so frequent they barely make headlines.

Systems on the other side of the water cycle don't seem to be doing so well, either. The recent boil-water alerts in Cary and Cherokee are just two in a string of them. Seems like someone's had to put the kettle on some place or another all summer long. Then there's the idea that Durham might not be alone in its lead problems, and we may see more municipalities recommending that you run the tap for three minutes just to be safe. Guess we'd better hope the drought doesn't come back. Oh wait, it has.

We need something a little more forward thinking than boiling water, running our faucets and restricting access to fouled lakes, rivers and beaches.

This is where the Peter/Paul principle enters the picture. Yes, that's right; get your pillows out because I'm going to rail against deferred maintenance (insert dramatic pipe organ chord here).

It is long-term and butt-dumb stupid to put off improvements and needed repairs to the public infrastructure. But towns, counties and water systems do it all the time--shifting maintenance funds into other areas to make the budget. It's a habit that is not exclusively a matter of rich and poor. In high-growth areas, resources are focused more on keeping up with expansion than keeping up with repairs. In less affluent towns, aging systems get patched over instead of replaced.

In fact, you can see many of our finer cities, towns and counties represented each month on the tally sheet of fines handed out by the state's Division of Water Quality.

Aside from that whole danger to public health thing, there are a couple of other reasons why this is troubling. First, the public sector ought to live up to the same responsibilities and requirements it asks of the private sector. When the state was cracking down on hog farms, the industry used to complain that municipal systems did more damage than the hogs did. While at the time a lot of folks called that hogwash, the farmers' record since then has at least shown some improvement, while sewage plant spills are just as bad, if not worse.

The second reason why all this is troubling is that thanks to new federal rules, we're about to enter a whole new era of stormwater management, including a lot of new infrastructure that will need to be maintained. You have to wonder how some of these towns will manage to handle stormwater when they can't even keep their you-know-what together.

Billing you for the future

The state's two top electric utilities are pretty sure the future is in new nuclear generators. Duke Energy is so convinced that it wants to start billing you for one right away. The company is asking state regulators to allow it to start charging customers to recoup the cost of a plant it wants to build in South Carolina. Duke, which paid out 32 cents per share in dividends last quarter to those holding its roughly 1.2 million shares outstanding, says if all goes well the new plant should be on-line by 2016.

Report cards

Man, do we suck or what? First we get an "F" in affordability from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Members of the UNC Board of Governors, meeting coincidentally on the day the report came out, noted that no state got above a "C." No grading on the curve for the center, evidently. It's chaired, by the way, by former Gov. Jim Hunt.

Now, there's a new report card out and we got an overall "C-" in a survey of infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The engineers fault that pesky deferred maintenance gene prevalent here. They gave the state a "D" in roads for all the potholes, cracks and crumbling overpasses and a "D" in dams. We did manage to pull out a "B-" in rail. State analysts are still trying determine if North Carolina's GPA will require us to repeat 2006.

Kirk Ross travels the state for CapeFearMercury.com and writes about state governance at ExileonJonesStreet.com. He can be reached at editor@capefearmercury.com.

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