Water rate hike: Costly, unpopular — and needed

‘I can live with myself, losing an election and knowing the water system is stable,’ the mayor said.


When a politician wants you to open your wallet even as he asks for your vote, you can assume he doesn’t have an easier alternative.

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell faces that dilemma. While he is running for re-election in November, he is seeking big hikes in regional water rates for the next five years to cover the costs of necessary, overdue improvements to the city water system.

The mayor’s persuasive argument: The work must get done, urgently. It needs to be paid for. And there isn’t a better Plan B.

“I can live with myself, losing an election and knowing the water system is stable,” Mayor Bell told me last week as he visited The Blade to introduce his rate proposal. “This is about doing the right thing. We absolutely have to do this, and the clock is ticking.”

The mayor’s administration has developed a 20-year, $314 million plan to upgrade the Collins Park water treatment plant in East Toledo and to replace antiquated underground water lines. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the city to speed up its timetable for the most critical fixes.

Mr. Bell wants to borrow money to pay for these improvements by selling bonds, at a time when interest rates remain near record lows. Revenue from higher rates for the water system’s 500,000 customers in northwest Ohio would back the bonds.

Under the mayor’s proposal, water rates would rise by 13.2 percent a year starting next Jan. 1 through 2017, and another 4.5 percent in 2018. That’s on top of 9 percent rate increases over each of the past four years.

That sounds like a lot. But Mayor Bell would prefer that you consider the plan in dollar terms.

A typical Toledo homeowner who uses 1,000 cubic feet of water a month — that’s roughly 240 gallons a day — pays $14.53 monthly for water service. In 2018, he or she would pay $24.93.

Citing figures from the American Water Works Association, the Bell administration notes that Toledoans still would pay less for water in five years than their counterparts in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, and Detroit paid last year.

“We’re sensitive to the recession,” Mayor Bell says. “We have to be conservative and compassionate. But for a city our size, we are really undercharging for this resource … You can’t get a deal this cheap.”

Elderly and disabled customers who qualify for the homestead discount typically pay $10.90 for water every three months. By 2018, their quarterly rate would increase to $18.71. Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat says the proposed increases fall well within federal poverty guidelines that link water costs to household income.

Federal aid isn’t available for the water system improvements, says city utilities director David Welch. At best, he adds, the state could provide loans that would have to be repaid. The system’s own financial reserves are dangerously low.

Doing nothing is no longer an option. City water lines are, on average, 72 years old. The Collins Park plant opened in 1941; Mr. Welch says that “every component has to be upgraded, replaced, or fixed.” In the past two years, the system has endured two major failures that temporarily cut the flow of water.

The Ohio EPA could sue the city to force a rate hike for the repairs if they don’t proceed voluntarily and promptly. Cries of poverty likely wouldn’t generate much sympathy in Columbus.

But more important, Mayor Bell says, is the need to avoid an environmental or infrastructure disaster in water lines or at the treatment plant. Such an emergency could force the system’s customers to boil what comes out of their taps for an extended period.

“Water is our biggest economic development [advantage],” he says. “I don’t want to have a catastrophic collapse of the system, and people saying: ‘You should have done something.’ ”

The city water department has a notorious, long-standing reputation as a haven for unproductive patronage workers. To combat that rap, the mayor says he is inviting a performance audit of the department, to be done by the state or a private company. Mr. Bell also pledges to press his proposal to make the Toledo water system a regional entity.

The mayor’s rate plan requires City Council approval. Along with the mayor, half the council is up for election this year. So you can expect a fair amount of political grandstanding over the rate issue, and an effort to kick the can farther down the road. That won’t wash.

Toledoans can reasonably ask how city officials, past and present, failed to perform preventive maintenance of the water system for so long, allowing it to deteriorate to its current state.

The recession surely hasn’t helped. But assigning blame is less important now than doing what has to be done.

“Talking, talking, talking, talking, and talking some more isn’t going to change anything,” Mayor Bell says. “Posturing for personal benefit won’t help anyone. This needs to occur.”

Please join me in welcoming — or, more precisely, welcoming back — Keith C. Burris as associate editor for The Blade’s Pages of Opinion.

Mr. Burris, an Ohio native, was a member of our editorial board from 1986 to 1989. After that, he worked for several newspapers in Connecticut, most recently as editorial page editor of the Manchester Journal Inquirer.

He is author of the just-published book Deep River: The Life and Music of Robert Shaw. He has a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. He is married and the father of three children.

Mr. Burris’ first column upon his return appears on this page. Look for him to make important contributions to The Blade and this community.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1