As Toledoans fret about the toxicity of their water supply, Mayor D. Michael Collins’ administration is preparing to ask Toledo City Council to approve a substantial six-year increase in sewer rates. The city needs money from the rate hike to finish construction of the Toledo Waterways Initiative (TWI), a federally mandated program to keep sewage out of local rivers and streams by upgrading the municipal sewer system.
City officials — and voters — committed themselves to the $521 million construction program a dozen years ago. Established deadlines must be met, the work has to get done, and it has to be paid for. This surely is no time for grandstanding or obstructionism; council members need to approve the rate increase promptly.
The administration’s proposal includes annual sewer rate increases of 7.1 percent from 2015 through 2019, and 7.9 percent in 2020. A previous three-year rate hike to pay for TWI expires at year’s end; a separate five-year increase in city water rates went into effect this year.
The typical Toledo residential customer now pays $150 every three months for sewer service; that cost would rise to $228 in the final year of the rate hike. For elderly and disabled homeowners who qualify for the reduced homestead rate, typical quarterly payments would increase from $59 now to nearly $90 in 2020.
Donald Moline, commissioner of the city’s Department of Public Utilities, insists sewer rates will remain generally affordable for low-income households even with the rate increase. Still, the increase will create financial hardships for some customers, and the administration properly pledges to work with them to ensure they can continue to pay their bills.
But the city has no realistic alternative. Without the rate increase, it would lack the money to proceed with TWI, fall out of compliance with a federal court order, and face further sanctions.
Before it agreed to TWI, the city routinely dumped raw sewage into local waterways when heavy storms caused sewers to overflow. Such pollution was intolerable, contributing to blooms of toxic algae in Lake Erie.
Such blooms remain a big problem, even though sewage is no longer a chief contributor. This weekend's water emergency is linked to algae in Lake Erie. The city clearly can’t relax on its sewer improvements.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city to clean up its act. After 11 years of litigation, city officials agreed in 2002 to build facilities to collect, store, and transport contaminated water for treatment before it gets discharged into local waterways. Voters approved higher sewer rates for the program.
Collins administration officials note that the proposed rate hike is solely for TWI construction, not for sewer operations. They told Blade editors and reporters last week that the cost of TWI is far less than the price tags of similar sewer-improvement plans in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Akron, as well as the Indiana cities of Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
“We’ve met every milestone, on time and on budget,” says Edward Moore, director of the city Department of Public Utilities. “We take pride in that.”
The seven TWI projects that remain include the three largest. The biggest is the $88.2 million Ottawa River Storage Facility, which will include a massive underground basin in Joe E. Brown Park. A contract for that project must be in place by Sept. 4 to meet a court deadline.
This is a good time to sell 20-year bonds backed by rate revenues to pay for TWI projects, while interest rates are low. Even if the city could delay its timetable, it would face higher construction and borrowing costs in future years.
City officials say completion of TMI will eliminate 80 percent of untreated sewage from Toledo waterways. Realization of that objective is not just desirable but vital, as the current emergency makes clear. In the next few weeks, council members must authorize the money needed to finish the program.