Unfunded Mandate in Aumsville

What is an unfunded mandate? That was a common term in the 90s that gets less mention today. An unfunded mandate is a problem where a higher level of government passes a law requiring a lower level of government to do something expensive and the higher authority does not pay for it. Banning the practice at the federal level was a central tenet of Newt Ginrich’s 1994 Contract with America.

Aumsville, Oregon faces a prime example: over $300 average monthly water bills. Why? Because they have to replace their serviceable sewer system. Though built in 1960, it’s not broken. Aumsville’s treatment plant just emits slightly too much ammonia, according to Oregon DEQ’s 2017 interpretation of new federal rules. That’s going to cost Aumsville ratepayers $28 million.

Did Aumsville disregard the law by building a bad sewage system? No, the law has changed and changed in a way that doesn’t grandfather old wastewater treatment plants.

That policy rigidity has fiscal policy implications that federal and state policymakers take little responsibility for. According to the Salem Statesman Journal: “The city received $984,000 through the American Rescue Plan Act and Marion County gave it another $1 million in ARPA funds. It’s received $1.3 million from the federal government.” The remaining $24,716,000 is an unfunded mandate.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.