Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Progress, not evasion

City officials who demand action by others to clean up Lake Erie can set their own example of leadership

Second marriages are famously, if cynically, defined as the triumph of hope over experience. Toledoans who are waiting to see how city elected officials will respond to this week’s water emergency will have to make the same calculation.

Mayor D. Michael Collins and City Council face several tough, urgent decisions that will help determine whether Toledo can avoid a recurrence of the crisis caused by detection of a toxin in the city’s water supply — a product of toxic algae in western Lake Erie, the source of that water.

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Past practice offers little cause for optimism that collectively these officials are up to that task. But they will have to be, or will need to make way for other people who are.

In the next few weeks, council members will vote on Mayor Collins’ request for a significant six-year increase in city sewer rates. Administration officials say they need the money from the rate hike to complete the Toledo Waterways Initiative (TWI), an upgrade of the municipal sewer system that will nearly eliminate the dumping of raw sewage into area waterways during heavy storms.

Such discharges contribute to the explosive growth of toxic algae in Lake Erie. The remaining TWI work must be done and paid for; council members need to approve the rate increase promptly.

At the same time, the Collins administration must conduct a top-to-bottom review of the Collins Park water treatment plant, where the presence of the toxin microcystin was identified in the water. Did the plant function effectively? Were its testing and treatment practices adequate? Could Toledo have avoided the emergency, as other municipal systems that get water from Lake Erie did?

Toledoans started to pay higher water rates this year to finance several projects, including improvements to the treatment plant. Will that revenue be adequate, or will the city need even more money to do what needs to get done?

On previous occasions when the council considered water and sewer rate increases, several veteran incumbents — including the mayor, when he was a council member — opted at least initially for short-term political expediency over long-term infrastructure needs.

They rejected or sought to limit proposed rate hikes, delaying needed repairs and improvements. Better to let the water and sewer system collapse at some dim future time than risk offending rate-paying voters immediately, they reasoned.

But a crisis has occurred, and some council members appear still not to grasp its magnitude. Instead of acknowledging their previous shortsightedness, they continue to defend such willful neglect as a matter of looking out for ratepayers.

For his part, Mayor Collins said this week that “it’s time to stop talking about western Lake Erie and do something about it.” He was referring to state and federal officials, but he can set his own example of immediate leadership.

The mayor speaks of assigning a member of his staff to be his point person on water issues — months from now, when that employee has finished other tasks. That’s urgency in a crisis?

Instead, the mayor should hire the best local experts in environmental and infrastructure issues to conduct a prompt, thorough, independent examination of water-system operations. On the basis of that review, he will need to determine whether additional work is required, and then find the money to pay for it.

Council members will have to contribute to that effort. It needs to happen now — not months or more down the road.

City officials must approach these issues in a spirit of thoughtfulness and courage, not political self-preservation. If they aren’t willing or able to do that, Toledoans ought to remember it the next time these officials seek their votes.

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