Benson should be mindful of family budgets

December 21, 2013 

Every town has done it; Benson is just the latest to raise a utility rate in the middle of a budget year.

Like other towns, Benson charges its customers for the water they use, but it also levies a flat monthly fee for access to the town’s water system. Earlier this month, the Benson Board of Commissioners raised that fee from $3.15 to $10.

On one hand, that’s an increase of 217 percent in one year; on the other, it’s just $6.85 a month. Either way, it’s $82.20 a year, which is the number that likely matters most to Benson residents and should have mattered more than it did to town commissioners.

Any number of things can cost $82, including, say, a cell-phone plan for a teenager who works a part-time job at night. We suspect that teen’s parents take comfort in knowing he has a cell phone in case of emergency. What are they to do now? What spending decision will they make now that their wallets are $82 lighter?

This is not to say Benson doesn’t need the money the rate increase will generate. As town leaders note, some of their water lines have gone without maintenance for decades, and in some neighborhoods, water pressure is low and muddied.

But the lesson there is to perform maintenance all along, not to wait decades until maintenance must be done at a steep cost to consumers. Again, Benson is not alone here; other Johnston towns, we suspect, are sitting on millions of dollars in neglected maintenance needs.

If it makes Benson water customers feel any better, most of the money for repairs will come from grants secured by Town Hall. That’s a testament to Town Manager Matt Zapp and his staff.

But what Benson leaders fail to appreciate is the difference between Town Hall and the families it serves. Both make budgets based on income, but unlike families, which can’t arbitrarily increase their income, Benson can get more money whenever it wants. All that’s required is for commissioners to tax residents more heavily.

No doubt, Benson needs money to repair its aging water lines. But it also needs to be more diligent – more routine – in maintaining its infrastructure, and it needs to be mindful of the financial hardships its decisions can place on families.

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