The Water Works as a Separate Unit
In reply to a request for advice from the officials of a New York state town in which it was proposed to remove the authority from the water works over its own affairs and place this control in the hands of the village board, the New York state bureau of municipal research in a letter signed by Stephen B. Story, said:
“A utility such as a municipal light, power and water system, should be operated as a utility which pays its own way and does not receive support by general taxation except for services rendered a municipality which should be paid for by taxation, namely, such services as fire protection. The administration of this utility should be removed from the effects of politics as far as possible and it is my belief that your present system does this. It is a practical impossibility, except in very rare instances to get an elective official qualified to conduct the operation of a utility such as the one in question. Its operation is a matter of experience, training and education, and the unpaid, disinterested commission should be able to select the individual to operate the utility.”
This is not only sound common sense but is also of considerable general interest, owing to the tendency to reduce the water department to the status of a bureau and remove the authority of the superintendent over the management and finances of his department.
While there may he exceptional cases where such a plan has worked well, as a general rule, it tends to the reduction of the efficiency of the water works, by removing the responsibility of the superintendent. At the same time, the plan places this responsibility on the shoulders of a man who is already burdened with the supervision of two or three other bureaus and who cannot, in the nature of the case, give the water works the undivided attention it should receive.
In the meantime, the man who should bear this responsibility is reduced to a mere bureau head with only a restricted authority, if any. It is in human nature that such a man, unless he is a very exceptional individual. will let down on his interest in his bureau and will not take the initiative in its affairs which he would be compelled to, were his authority as department head supreme.
From this point of view, at least, the water works should be continued as a separate unit and not merged with other bureaus in a general department.