The problems with Toledo's antiquated water and sewer system are real and severe. The resources available to fix those problems are limited. These realities require Mayor Mike Bell's administration and City Council to work together to find real solutions, not merely to trade barbs.
The infrastructure that brings fresh water to Toledo homes and removes waste and storm water needs repair, replacement, and upgrades. Three quarters of the system is more than 70 years old; 20 percent was built more than a century ago. Water-main breaks are an almost daily occurrence.
Toledo is under a federal court order to clean up what it dumps in the Maumee River. The projected cost of upgrading its wastewater treatment plant and making other sewer repairs is $521 million. The deadline for meeting the mandate is 2020.
Neither City Council nor Toledo-area water customers can ignore these facts. But that doesn't make any more palatable Mayor Bell's proposal to raise annual water and sewer rates for the average residential customer by nearly $400 - almost $170 for senior citizens who qualify for the homestead exemption - over four years.
Council members, largely responding to the outrage of area residents who are on the economic brink, rejected the proposed hikes last week. But they didn't propose an alternative. Instead, they appeared to be picking numbers out of a hat when they suggested one-year hikes of 4.5 percent or 9 percent. Those proposals were voted down as well.
Mayor Bell got council's hackles up when he accused it of ignoring the crisis. Other administration officials insist all the repairs are equally urgent.
These arguments are not likely to impress residential or business customers for whom demands on their limited finances are beginning to feel like Toledo water torture. Any new rate structure must take genuine ability to pay into account, and not just for elderly and disabled Toledoans.
Toledo's water and sewer system is a disaster waiting to happen. Any decision to fix one problem instead of another will be a gamble. City Council and the Bell administration must work together on a plan that meets the city's most pressing needs without drowning area ratepayers in debt.