Taylor's exit no excuse to fracture city's water cleanup

Cheryl Taylor's sudden and unfortunate departure from her job as commissioner of Environmental Quality and Public Works creates a problem Lexington really doesn't need at a critical moment.

The department oversees the multi-year, $540 million project to overhaul Lexington's dangerously broken sanitary sewer and stormwater systems, as required under a consent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

We're still in the early stages of the work and have met or beaten all the deadlines set out so far in the agreement with the EPA. Failure to meet the deadlines and the goals in the consent decree could result in serious fines for the city; worse, it would shortchange and endanger residents who have lived way too long with flooded basements and raw sewage in the streets. This is a large, complex and critical undertaking that can't be allowed to go off track.

The administration and the council should keep a couple of thoughts in mind as they address this challenge.

Although Taylor had an appealing combination of energy, experience and engineering and management know-how, no one is irreplaceable. The Gray administration can, and we trust will, find a competent, committed and imaginative person to fill the job.

Taylor was the first commissioner of this department, which Gray formed by combining two city departments. In the past, new subdivisions and other development exacerbated the city's burgeoning sewer and stormwater problems, due in part to both lack of communication between the departments and lax enforcement by the city's engineering division.

In times of crisis there's always a tendency to revert to the way things were done before. That shouldn't be an option in this case. We got to the point of being sued by the EPA for violations of the Clean Water Act in part because of the disconnect that led to the city approving developments that inundated already overloaded systems, and because of inconsistent and lax enforcement of the environmental protections we had on the books. In effect, one city department was giving its blessing to worsening our dirty water problems while another was trying to clean them up. United, there's at least a fighting chance that our local government won't be working at cross purposes.

Likewise, this isn't a problem that can be outsourced. Although much of the engineering and construction will be done by contractors, the city must maintain total control over this project. It's too expensive and too vital to public health to be overseen by people whose loyalties are divided between citizens and shareholders.

The financial fallout of Lexington's past error in outsourcing its water supply provides a cautionary tale. The board that oversees Louisville's public water utility just passed a 3.75 percent rate increase, the same as last year, and will pay a $19.2 million dividend to the city. Meanwhile, Kentucky American, our private water supplier, which pays dividends only to its shareholders, got approval for a 29 percent rate increase last year and can be expected to go for another soon.

The Gray administration must move quickly, as it has promised, to find a fully qualified person to take Taylor's place. The city should be very slow, though, to take this setback as a green light to change its approach in this critical area of public service.