Many communities across the country want local public control of their water and sewer services. Municipalization — the purchase of a privately owned system by a local government — is a fairly common occurrence, but for communities unfamiliar with it, the process could appear daunting. This guide provides an overview of the process and a number of logistical considerations involved in government purchases of privately owned water and sewer systems. Although the general procedure is similar, the specifics will vary by situation, partly because every state has its own legal and regulatory framework.
These are the four basic phases involved in a public purchase of a privately owned water system:
- Study and planning
- Condemnation (if negotiation fails)
- Sale and transition
The entire process must be as open and transparent as possible, with ample opportunity for public input. Communities will need to make several key decisions about how they want their water systems to work, and these choices will have long-term effects on water service. Municipalization is fairly straightforward unless the company owning the system refuses to come to the bargaining table. Certain large water companies
frequently spurn negotiation and aggressively resist local-control efforts. In these instances, strong community organization is essential to counter the opposition from special corporate interests and to see the municipalization through the condemnation process.
Federal and state policies should support public ownership of community water and sewer systems. Legislators should streamline the municipalization process and forestall unnecessary and wasteful legal challenges from large water corporations.
Water and sewer services are natural monopolies — necessary for public health and without substitution. Responsible and locally accountable public operation can best ensure safe and affordable service for all.