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Published: Thursday, 7/26/2012

Running water

Toledo's economy is recovering, slowly. Money is tight even for Toledoans who have hung onto their jobs and their homes. So it is gratifying that the city Department of Public Utilities is working with customers who are having trouble paying their water bills.

Toledo's jobless rate, which reached nearly 13 percent in January, 2009, fell last month to 8.1 percent. The home-foreclosure rate in Lucas County is running ahead of last year's, although well below the rate in 2009, when more than 4,100 homes were foreclosed.

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Still, many Toledoans are working more and earning less, while it costs more to buy everything from groceries to gasoline. So when the city raised water rates by 9 percent last year -- $22 a quarter for the typical customer -- some ratepayers declared it the last straw.

But it wasn't. Sewer-service rates also increased by 3 percent in 2011. And water rates will continue to rise: $7 a quarter this year, $7.40 a quarter in 2013, and $7.85 a quarter in 2014.

As a result, more people are falling behind in paying their water bills. About $2.3 million in outstanding bills are 60 to 180 days overdue. And more people are stealing water, often by turning it back on after utility workers have turned it off.

Scofflaws and thieves must be prosecuted. But the utilities department says it wants to work with residents on payment plans before they get too far behind.

One of the people who got behind, The Blade reports, is Toledo City Council member Tyrone Riley, who owns more than two dozen properties. He blamed his $8,680 in unpaid water bills on his tenants, but property owners ultimately are responsible for water bills.

Mr. Riley has repaid most of what he owed. But the utilities department has shut off service to nearly 5,400 homes so far this year. In all of 2011, water was turned off at 6,535 properties.

This year, the utilities department instituted a voluntary monthly billing system to spread water and sewer bill payments out. For people on a tight budget, monthly payments often are easier to deal with than the current quarterly billing system. But people have to make use of the monthly option to benefit from it.

The economic picture for the Toledo area has gotten brighter in recent months, but the personal budgets of many area residents remain stressed. Still, city utilities director David Welch says 98 percent of Toledoans pay their water bills.

People who fall behind should contact the utilities department, which should do everything it can to help. It is in everyone's interest to keep the water running.



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