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Published: Tuesday, 6/9/2009

Mike Bell seeks panel to advise on water fees

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
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Mayoral candidate Mike Bell called yesterday for establishing a regional water compact that would advise the city on the price of water sold to neighboring communities.

Mr. Bell said his plan would promote regional understanding, but political opponents said Mr. Bell's proposal could have the effect of driving up Toledo residents' charges for water.

A political independent, Mr. Bell said he would not sell Toledo's water system, which supplies water to most of the greater Toledo area, nor turn over rate-setting authority to a regional authority.

But he would form a "compact" that would share information about the cost of running Toledo's water system. He said such cooperation would promote regional development.

"Toledoans have a valuable resource in the water. We want to bring to the table the ability to use our water system as a point of economic development for our region," Mr. Bell said.

He said he attended a public hearing in Rossford last week and came away with the impression that Rossford residents believe Toledo's demands for a new water contract are holding the community hostage.

"When I was listening to some of the things that were said in Rossford, it seems like the fees were sort of high," he said.

He also noted the city of Toledo was not represented in the hearing.

"If we're truly involving the idea of teamwork we have to be sitting there," Mr. Bell said.

In negotiations on a new water contract, the city of Toledo has proposed increasing Rossford's rate from the old contract price of a 50 percent surcharge on the price of water charged in Toledo to 115 percent.

Plus, the city of Toledo wants a 40 percent share of all income tax revenue above $400,000 generated in the Crossroads of American economic development zone, and 27 percent below that level. Under the current contract, the city gets 27 percent of income tax revenues in that zone.

Toledo City Council passed a policy in 2006 setting water rates at a 75 percent surcharge in Lucas County and a 115 percent surcharge outside Lucas County.

Robert Reinbolt, chief of staff for Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, said no city representative attended the Rossford hearing because the city wasn't invited.

And he said the 40-60 percent revenue-sharing split proposed for the new agreement with Rossford is consistent with recent agreements with Sylvania and Lake and Perrysburg townships.

"We're not holding anybody hostage; we're negotiating," Mr. Reinbolt said. He said Toledo should share in the economic development other communities enjoy based on the city's extension of water service.

"If we're going to grow as a region we have to grow as partners," Mr. Reinbolt said.

Revenue from the sale of water can only be used to support Toledo's water treatment and distribution system. But revenue from tax-sharing agreements goes into the general fund, which pays for police, fire, parks, and other general services.

Jim Moody, Mr. Bell's Republican rival for mayor in the Sept. 15 primary election, said Mr. Bell would weaken the city's bargaining position.

"This would lock Toledo into a permanent water agreement and put its citizens at risk," said Mr. Moody. "This is not the way you represent the city in any sort of negotiations, by tipping your hand. Rather you tell them, 'yes we want to work with you and make a deal.'•"

Both of Mr. Bell's Democrat rivals said the plan sounds like a recipe for higher water rates or taxes.

Ben Konop, now a Lucas County commissioner, interpreted Mr. Bell's proposal for a "compact" as a plan for a regional water system.

"An exhaustive 2000 study conducted by Lucas County and the City of Toledo concluded that the very idea Mike Bell is proposing now will raise the rates for all Toledo residents and for some customers in other communities," Mr. Konop said.

Keith Wilkowski said Mr. Bell "seems to have a basic misunderstanding of the rules that apply and our city budget.

"Water revenues cannot be used to solve the current budget problem and doing that amounts to a back-door tax increase," Mr. Wilkowski said.

He said water can be used to benefit Toledoans and the region through joint economic development agreements.

Michael Ashford, chairman of council's environment, utilities, and public service committee, cautioned against Toledo selling its water too cheaply.

"There are so many suburbs that put on a surcharge twice what the city is charging, and residents don't know about that," he said.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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