Even as Wall Street deals like the one with Bayonne help financially desperate municipalities to make much-needed repairs, they can come with a hefty price tag — not just to pay for new pipes, but also to help the investors earn a nice return, a New York Times analysis has found. Often, these contracts guarantee a specific amount of revenue, The Times found, which can send water bills soaring.
Water rates in Bayonne have risen nearly 28 percent since Kohlberg Kravis Roberts — one of Wall Street’s most storied private equity firms — teamed up with another company to manage the city’s water system, the Times analysis shows. City officials also promised residents a four-year rate freeze that never materialized.
In one measure of residents’ distress, people are falling so far behind on their bills that the city is placing more liens against their homes, which can eventually lead to foreclosures.
In the typical private equity water deal, higher rates help the firms earn returns of anywhere from 8 to 18 percent, more than what a regular for-profit water company may expect. And to accelerate their returns, two of the firms have applied a common strategy from the private equity playbook: quickly flipping their investment to another firm. This includes K.K.R., which is said to be shopping its 90 percent stake in the Bayonne venture, a partnership with the water company Suez.
Rich Henning, a Suez spokesman, said that “Bayonne had chronically underinvested in their water and sewer infrastructure, which has certainly contributed to rate increases during the past few years.” He added, “We understand that these increases create stresses for ratepayers.” [unspoken: “But we really don’t care about that: the important thing is to make a good profit with a healthy rate of return.” – LG]
President-elect Donald J. Trump has made the privatization of public works a centerpiece of his strategy to rebuild America’s airports, bridges, tunnels and roads. Members of his inner circle have sketched out a vision, including billions of dollars of tax credits for private investors willing to tackle big infrastructure projects. And Mr. Trump himself promised in his victory speech “to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”
Private equity firms like K.K.R. have already presented themselves as a willing partner, and Bayonne provides an important case study. Its arrangement is one of a handful of deals across the country in the last few years in which private equity firms have managed public water systems. While these deals are a small corner of private equity’s sprawling interests, they represent the leading edge of the industry’s profound expansion into public services.
For residents, the financial trade-offs from these water deals can be painful.
The Times analyzed three deals in which private equity firms have recently run a community’s water or sewer services through a long-term contract. In all three places — Bayonne, and two cities in California, Rialto and Santa Paula — rates rose more quickly than in comparable towns, which included both publicly and privately run water systems. In Santa Paula, where Alinda Capital Partners controlled the sewer plant, the city more than doubled the rates. A fourth municipality, Middletown, Pa., raised its rates before striking a deal.
Now, some of these cities are trying to take back their water. Missoula, Mont., wrested away its water system, which had been owned by the Carlyle Group. Apple Valley, Calif., whose waterworks were also owned by Carlyle, has filed a similar lawsuit. Santa Paula bought its sewer plant from Alinda last year.
Of course, there’s a reason many communities look for private partners to begin with: Their water systems are in poor shape. Budget shortfalls and political mismanagement can represent a real threat to both infrastructure and citizens. For evidence, look no further than the crisis in Flint, Mich., where the drinking water became tainted with lead.
“Keeping rates down may sound like the ultimate righteous good for ratepayers, but the truth is, not if you’re failing to provide basic care and maintenance,” said Megan Matson, a partner at Table Rock Capital, the boutique private equity firm that invested in Rialto’s water and sewer system. She added that it helps for deals to “provide more obvious public benefits,” noting that her firm partnered with Ullico, the nation’s only labor-owned insurance and investment company. . .