Out of their depth

Out of their depth

January 2, 2010 20:11
3 minute read.


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As of January 1, we are all due to pay substantially more for our water. Over the coming year our water bills are set to spiral by well over 40%, regardless of how conservative our individual water use may be, where we live, the size of our household or how much we earn. Moreover, that may not be the end of it. More hikes are likely to follow, warns State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. Often the last bulwark against officialdom's obtuseness, Lindenstrauss last week characterized the decision to radically increase the cost of water as "hasty and flawed." Proposing it be reconsidered, he strongly censured the notion of inflicting on the populace penalties for the government's gross past miscalculations and of sticking us with the bill for future infrastructure rather than appropriately budgeting for essential projects. In a special report commissioned by the Knesset State Control Committee and issued just two days before the new draconian rates were to take effect, Lindenstrauss methodically dissected the decision to charge the public for administrative blunders. The defects he pinpointed included the following:

  • The price-rise is inherently regressive as it will hit the super-rich and the neediest families in identical measure, thus creating proportionally greater hardship for the lower-income strata.
  • The public was underrepresented in the Israel Water Authority, which determined the hike and its extent, thereby upsetting the balance between the interests of the public and those of the government.
  • A detailed long-term master plan on how to make up for past inaction must precede price hikes, along with meticulous analysis of data and price-components.
  • It's illegitimate to encumber water-consumers with infrastructure costs. This constitutes a double-whammy: a) Consumers and households are compelled to subsidize government operations, when projects aren't financed openly via the state budget, and b) when mega-projects are directly funded by ordinary citizens - via specific fees outside the largely progressive tax system - the burden is unfairly distributed. AS EXPECTED, the Water Authority was quick to predict doom and gloom should the price hike not be implemented. At stake, it warned, are new desalination plants and the solvency of local water boards. But these arguments are disingenuous. In any case we pay high taxes, which, we are told, are always at least partly earmarked to bankroll large-scale national development schemes. Desalination plants are precisely the sort of projects for which we already pay. There is no justification to double-tax us and charge again for the same projects, this time via the price of the most elementary and vital commodity of all. The decision to make water drastically more expensive seemed to largely escape the radar of public scrutiny. There was almost no squawk. Indeed there was near-jubilation because news of the hikes took a back seat to the simultaneous announcement that the drought levy is to be suspended. Few took the trouble to notice that the progressive levy - based on how much water is used per capita - is being replaced by a regressive increase which makes no allowances for any extenuating circumstances. Adopting Lindenstrauss's recommendation that the hike be put on hold, the Knesset Control Committee will now seek to sway the Treasury to change tack. We hope the committee also manages to persuade the Knesset plenum to pass legislation that will impose transparency on water policy and pricing, including limiting the Water Authority's power and Treasury intervention. The availability and affordability of a commodity so indispensable mustn't become an unsanctioned revenue-generating tool for any government agency and certainly not a means to cover up an egregious failure - particularly over the past decade - to construct adequate desalination facilities. Additionally, we witness an incomprehensible ongoing failure to conserve existing resources. Paying incrementally more for higher water use is one way to educate the public that squandering is costly. The drought levy aimed at that. An across-the-board increase will achieve the precise opposite, to our inevitable collective detriment. It imparts a wrong, counterproductive message. It tells consumers that waste isn't penalized and that responsibility isn't rewarded. We cannot afford such folly in our parched region.

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