Realism on water rates


Toledo Mayor Mike Bell is right: The city will have to raise water rates — soon — to fix its deteriorating Collins Park water-treatment plant and make other needed upgrades to its water and sewer system. Even in an election year, these urgent needs cannot be deferred.

City Council President Joe McNamara is right: If rate hikes are inevitable, the city needs to study the best way to ensure that they do not fall too heavily on seniors and low-income families. He wants his council colleagues to hire a consultant to prepare a water affordability study.

The question is whether the mayor, who is seeking re-election this November, can work effectively with a likely challenger on these matters. The debate over water rates should be about numbers and timing, not political advantage.

Mr. McNamara says the study he envisions would cost only a few thousand dollars and could be finished in several weeks. It would build on similar consulting advice the city got about its water and sewer rates in 2005, 2009, and 2010. That approach could save ratepayers money and eliminate guesswork.

But the study cannot become an excuse for further delay. Toledo’s water system has crumbled over decades. It now needs more than $250 million worth of improvements because of city government’s past inaction.

Not all the work needs to be done overnight. The city will be in a better position to negotiate a work schedule with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency once it has a clearer picture of what Toledo ratepayers can reasonably afford. The Bell administration’s recommendations and the consultants’ findings may not differ all that much.

This is an opportune time for the city to borrow money by selling construction bonds, while interest rates are at or near all-time lows. A few weeks should not make a difference in planning work that is likely to take a couple of decades.

At some point, though, patience stops being a virtue. “We can’t let the system fail, because the public health consequences would be dire,” Mr. McNamara told The Blade.

A half-million people in Toledo and its suburbs rely on the city’s system for clean water and environmentally sound sewage disposal. Water and sewer rates must provide enough revenue to meet these objectives, while providing adequate protection from economic hardship.

Council members must respect both imperatives as they maintain a sense of urgency — even in an election year.