Close Encounters of the Third-World Kind

It’s not just an issue of poor customer service; this region has a lot riding on a reliable, affordable water supply.

By Jack Cashill

A week or so ago, I had the kind of encounter one could have only in a nightmare or with our “KC Water,” the gussied up marketing brand of the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services Department. Unless I have yet to wake up, I think the encounter was with KC Water.
Here is what happened. More than a year ago, I tried to sign up for direct bill pay. I misread my checking account number—my bad—and was put in timeout for a year. When I tried to sign up once again, I was told that I had been late with my payment one month out of 12, so I would have to
wait another year.
That said, I still get an electronic bill that I typically pay by credit card. This month, however, there was no mechanism on my e-bill that allowed me to pay in any which way.
I called KC Water for help.
The woman who “assisted” me was very nice, no complaint there. She told me that many other people had called with the same problem, but neither she, nor her supervisor, was able to locate a payment mechanism on the e-bill.
After nearly an hour on the phone, we all admitted defeat, and the woman promised to e-mail me a bill with an address so I could pay by mail. It never came. Sigh.
Were it an isolated incident, it would be one thing, but I imagine the average bureaucracy in Kazakhstan or Venezuela functions better than KC Water.
Hell, the bureaucracies in my nightmares—“sorry, Mr. Cashill, the plane left half an hour ago”—function nearly as well, and nightmares at least come free. And yet, the water bill here gets more expensive by the month. Kansas City water rates have more than doubled since 2009, and come May 1, they will get jacked up even more.
Residential and commercial residents of Kansas City are staring down the barrel of two new ordinances that go into effect, appropriately enough, on International Worker’s Day. City leaders seem to be preparing us for the socialist paradise to come by giving us a taste of socialist bureaucracy in the here and now.
What I do not understand is how a bureaucracy that cannot put a pay button on an electronic bill could put together two ordinances of such Byzantine complexity.
According to the Citizens for Responsible Government, the only active watchdog group in the city, including the City Council, the money generated by this newest rate increase will not go to the water department, but rather into the city’s general fund “to be used however they see fit.”
This is doubly troubling because KC Water is supposed to be a separate entity, owned by the city but run independently. The city, however, seems to be squeezing every possible drop out of the KC Water sponge.
According to the CFRG, for instance, the Water Department pays the city a handsome $14 million for HR and administrative services, which works out to something like $14,000 per employee.
Apparently, it will also cost KC Water $47 million to move the water, sewer, and storm water lines to accommodate two miles of Downtown streetcar. If the four-mile extension is approved, that could cost another $100-$150 million, all eventually to be paid, one way or another, through taxes or water bills.
Visitors to the “newsroom” on KC Water’s Web site will learn none of this. If it were not for the occasional “precautionary advisory to boil water” article, everything at KC Water would seem to be going swimmingly.
The headlines, however, tell another story. The top four on Google include such unwelcome phrases as “water bills skyrocket,” “billions of gallons of water leak,” “$1 million to resolve two KC Water lab lawsuits,” and “KC water, sewer rates continue to rise.”
In time, if business continues as usual, the Nelson will have to replace its lush green lawn with a rock garden, residents along State Line Road will be running hoses across the street to the homes of their Kansas neighbors, and fountains on the Country Club Plaza will be flowing with Perrier—because it’s cheaper.
Six years ago, the reader may recall, a suitor from the private sector actually came calling to relieve us of our water services department. Missouri American Water, a subsidiary of American Water, offered to absorb $2.5 billion in projected sewer costs and an estimated $1 billion in water costs.
Better yet, American Water offered to give the city a few hundred million up front as sort of a signing bonus. For 20 years, American Water would own and manage the system, and then Kansas City would get first rights to buy it back.
Mayor Sly James may have been in office only a couple of years at that point, but he understood even then that sewage always flows downhill. Whoever dared to sell this mighty slush fund—rarely does a metaphor work so well—would catch a whole lot more of said sewage than he cared to, especially from AFSCME Local 500, which represents some 55 percent of the KC Water staff.
KC Water, by the way, has more than 1,000 employees on the payroll. The phrase “customer service” may have been an oxymoron even then, but that service, such that it was, was being provided by employees whose loyalty the mayor could always tap into.
At the time, the Chamber of Commerce was promoting the idea that Kansas City should do more to market itself as the nation’s “entrepreneurial capital.” At City Hall, that phrase must have sounded like a punch line to an unfunny joke.
Odysseus’ famously loyal wife, Penelope, did not resist her suitors more tenaciously than the mayor resisted his with the water department. “The sale of assets is not under consideration,” James insisted, and he had his way.
It is a shame he did.
While residents of other cities worry about “food deserts,” we now get to worry about a real desert.
It did not have to be this way.

The bureaucracies in my nightmares—“sorry, Mr. Cashill, the plane left half an hour ago”—function nearly as well as the water department, and nightmares at least come free.

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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