Whether Toledo’s beleaguered water system should be placed under the control of a regional authority is a valid topic for study and debate — in due course. Right now, local elected officials need to attend to more immediate problems with the city-owned system after this month’s water emergency.
Proposals before Toledo City Council and the Lucas County Board of Commissioners could lead to creation of a city-county board that would oversee water distribution and treatment, including purchase of the city’s treatment facilities. The new authority would include just the city and county for now, but proponents say they hope other suburban communities and counties served by the municipal water system eventually would join.
County commissioners have allocated $175,000 to study and prepare for the proposed water district. Council member Lindsay Webb, backed by four colleagues on the 12-member council, seeks to spend the same amount of city money. The Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments supports the proposal, which has arisen in past years.
Toledo voters would have to approve the new authority. Last week, Mayor D. Michael Collins told Blade editors he is skeptical of proposals to regionalize the water system.
“The ratepayers paid for this infrastructure,” he said. “If it’s regional, who runs it? Who makes the contracts?”
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken notes that nearly half of the Toledo system’s water customers live outside the city. They deserve a voice in the system’s governance and the rates they are charged, he says. “You’ve got winners and losers on rates,” Mr. Gerken told The Blade’s editorial board.
It would be naive of Toledo officials to expect other members of the new water authority to bail out the municipal system with a big cash infusion. In recent years, several suburbs — notably Perrysburg — have shown their contempt for regional initiatives by seceding from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.
Regional cooperation on provision of public services is generally a good idea, in terms of cost-effectiveness, operating efficiency, and potential for economic development. Hundreds of communities in northwest Ohio and across the state operate regional water and sewer authorities successfully.
But regionalism isn’t a panacea. Detroit’s water and sewer department is governed by a seven-member board that includes three suburban commissioners. The system has been under federal court oversight since 1977 because of its many operating problems, and chronic city-suburban squabbling has obstructed various efforts to reform it.
In Toledo, the regional proposal is a response to the fouling of the city’s drinking water; the crisis identified problems with operations at the Collins Park treatment plan. Gov. John Kasich’s administration acknowledged it had considered a state takeover of the East Toledo plant.
But there are more immediate things local officials can do to improve the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, and to help reduce pollution in Lake Erie that created the crisis. Council members can promptly approve Mayor Collins’ plan to increase sewer rates to raise the money needed to complete the Toledo Waterways Initiative, which will help keep raw sewage out of local rivers and streams.
The council also can get behind a helpful, if limited, effort to find better uses for sediment dredged from the Toledo shipping channel than dumping the silt into Maumee Bay. Such open dumping is a secondary cause of the phosphorus pollution that aggravates algae growth in western Lake Erie.
The regionalism debate is a legitimate element of the response to Toledo’s short and long-term water woes. But it can’t become an excuse to change the subject.