I would first like to take this opportunity to thank Senator Inhofe and Senator Crapo for holding this hearing and for giving the City of Wewoka the chance to speak out on this very important issue. As Senator Inhofe knows from when he served as the Mayor of Tulsa, managing a city is never an easy task. Unlike the Federal Government, we do not have the capacity to run deficits. Our books must always balance. This is difficult enough in the best of times, but when outside factors like unfunded mandates come into play, it is almost impossible. This is especially true in a small town like Wewoka.
Wewoka is a very diverse town: racially, economically and historically. It was founded by a former Indian slave in the Seminole Nation, has lived through the booms and busts of the oil industry, and has suffered many economic hardships along the way. Seminole County, where we reside, currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, almost twenty percent. Population has been steadily declining for the last several years and so have sales tax revenues. This is true, not just in Wewoka, but in small towns all across the state. I tell you this not to be pessimistic. Actually, we are very optimistic about our future. I merely want to point out that small towns like ours have dwindling resources and cannot afford the cost of heavy-handed regulations and unfunded mandates.
There are many examples of this that I could speak to you about. But in the interest of time, I have limited it to just a few. One example of how unfunded mandates complicate the business of City Government is in the area of excessive and constantly changing regulations in our drinking water. Most cities have a sizeable investment in their water treatment facilities. Wewoka is no exception. We take very seriously our duty to provide safe, clean and affordable drinking water to our citizens. However, City management and budgeting requires, not only making the books balance today, but budgeting for the future, as well. This is extremely difficult when the EPA and the DEQ constantly change the standards. Some of the changes are dubious, at best. Take for example, the issue of turbidity. Turbidity, as you no doubt have heard, relates to the cloudiness of water. Just as the lake that supplies our drinking water turns over every year and becomes cloudy or changes slightly in color or transparency, so too does our drinking water. This is turbidity. It does not indicate that there are any new chemicals or trace elements that affect water quality and public health in any way. Neither are these standards remaining static. They are constantly changing. The turbidity standard was recently changed from a level of 1.0 to satisfy the standard to a level of 0.5. It is currently scheduled to be further reduced to a level of .3. These arbitrary standards are having a considerable impact on the ability of small towns to continue providing water to their citizens, without enormous capital expense. This is not the only example of such standards, only one of the more recent.
Another problem I would like to speak to you today concerns our City’s sewer treatment plant. The City of Wewoka is currently under a consent order for water infiltration into our system. The consent order states that we will build another facility to replace the existing one and correct infiltration problems in the sewer distribution system. The current project price is around $4 Million. In trying to comply with the consent order, there have been numerous problems that have only served to delay and complicate the issue and add to the already excessive cost. For example, DEQ and EPA require that the city commission a study to determine the needs and costs involved in making the necessary changes. However, they required that we hire an outside engineer to do the study rather than use the city engineer. Rather than completing the study in-house and with minimal expense, the City had to hire a consultant and pay nearly $400,000 to complete the study. So, with the prospect of $4 Million Worth of repairs looming over our heads, which we cannot afford, the bureaucratic requirements are only adding to the problem. Another factor that adds to this problem is that in the six years that I have been City Manager of Wewoka, I have worked with 4 different regulators from DEQ and EPA. Each time employment changes, delays occur because the new employee is unfamiliar with our City or the consent order it operates under. Furthermore, regulations change so often that when preparing a final engineering report, we have had to amend our plan several times. Furthermore, they have requested additional information on 3 separate occasions, and they still have not approved our report. All of these factors have delayed the process and have made it more costly.
We estimate that by the time we begin construction on the new treatment plant, we will already be looking at regulations that will put us out of compliance. Once we are under a consent order, we have no other avenues to pursue, other than seeking funding to help pay for these improvements. Naturally, these costs will be passed on to our consumers. We estimate that a surcharge of $20 could be assessed to every water meter in Wewoka. When one out of every five citizens is unemployed, and the average income in near or below the poverty line, that cost is excessive.
Another unfunded mandate that has caused us problems in the past is in the area of security. Wewoka was recently asked by DEQ to erect an eight-foot security fence around our water treatment facility. By itself, this would not be a crippling requirement. But, considered against the backdrop of so many other costly regulations and over $5 Million dollars in needed upgrades in our water and sewer system, it certainly is. Furthermore, the directives that were issued concerning the fence were constantly changing. The representatives that I met with were certain that I needed a fence immediately. But, when asked, they could not tell me what kind or type of fence was required. They also couldn’t point out the regulations that required us to put up a fence. After several conversations with the DEQ’s staff, I was more confused than ever. Finally, I asked that they send someone to Wewoka to tour the site and explain exactly the fence I should build and where to put it. In the end, the security fence cost the City of Wewoka over $10,000. Because it was deemed an urgent need, it had to be done right away. So, this expense to the city was not budgeted. I wish I could say that this situation is unusual, but it isn’t. All too often, government regulations are enacted without regard to how they will effect the people on the other end.
That is why I am thankful to have the opportunity to speak with you today and share my concerns over these important issues. I am also grateful to Senators’ Inhofe and Crapo for taking the time to meet with us today and giving us an opportunity to express our views. With your help, I know that we can get a handle on our problems. We sincerely hope that you can lessen the burden that is placed on our cities by excessive regulation and unfunded mandates.