Water bill proposal dries up

Council says cuts don’t match Collins’ promise

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    Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins had promised to increase the senior discount on water bills from 25 percent to 40 percent.

  • Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins had promised to increase the senior discount on water bills from 25 percent to 40 percent.
    Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins had promised to increase the senior discount on water bills from 25 percent to 40 percent.

    Mayor D. Michael Collins on Monday started to make good on a campaign promise to cut water bills for senior citizens, but some Toledo councilmen immediately cried foul after reading the proposal’s fine print.

    Toledoans who qualify for the state’s property tax homestead-exemption — senior citizens or those who are permanently and totally disabled — receive a 25 percent discount for water and sewer, regardless of income level.

    During the mayoral primary campaign last year, then-Councilman Collins said if elected he would increase the senior discount on water bills from 25 percent to 40 percent.

    The proposal he sent this week to council for approval would increase the discount only on the water-usage portion of customers’ bill and not alter the 25 percent discounts on storm water and sanitary sewer costs — which comprise the majority of the bill for users. Additionally, the Collins administration proposed instituting a “means test” by which new homestead customers who make more than $30,500 would get no discounts at all.

    Councilman Lindsay Webb, chairman of council’s utilities and public service committee, said the proposal doesn’t meet the entirety of the mayor’s campaign promise.

    “My inclination is to leave well enough alone,” Ms. Webb said. “From my perspective, we want to encourage middle-income seniors to stay in the city, and by means testing you create a system as people age, they will not be eligible for the program.”

    She said the mayor made no mention of a means test last year.

    Under the mayor’s proposal, anyone receiving the discounts currently and who make more than $30,500 would not lose the discounts unless they move.

    Suburban residents who buy Toledo water do not get the discount and would not under the mayor’s proposal. The city has 21,590 homestead customers.

    Increasing the discount to 40 percent — even with the means test — would cost the city $250,000 in lost revenue, the Collins administration said. If approved, the water portion of a bill for the typical homestead customer would decrease from $12.34 a quarter to $9.87 a quarter.

    Councilman Sandy Spang also said the mayor was skirting his campaign promise. Ms. Spang said the promise was to reduce water bills 40 percent — not just the water-usage portion of the bill, which makes up about 40 percent of the average bill.

    Don Moline, the city’s utilities commissioner, said the proposal is meant to protect the “neediest Toledoans.”

    “Am I trying to keep grandma in her house? Yes, I am,” Mr. Moline said before council’s utilities committee Monday.

    Mayor Collins acknowledged that he did not mention a means tests during the campaign last year and said he is willing to support council modifying that part of the proposal.

    “The reality is we have about 22,000 people on the homestead in the city of Toledo, and 80 percent of those are living at poverty or below poverty levels,” the mayor said. “This seems to me to be — considering the other issues we will be addressing before year’s end — a way of responsibly dealing with seniors who are struggling to survive.”

    During the mayoral campaign last year, then-Councilman Joe McNamara said local senior citizens would lose the homestead-exemption discount on water, sewer, and trash collection fees after the state of Ohio reinstated income limits on who qualifies for the property-tax homestead exemption.

    Mr. McNamara pushed through legislation making the city’s director of public utilities responsible for assuring anyone who is at least 65 years old or is permanently and totally disabled gets the 25 percent discount on water and sewer rates, with a $5 monthly refuse-collection fee rather than $15.

    The discounts were in jeopardy for some, Mr. McNamara said, because city law was at the time tied to eligibility for the homestead exemption. With income restrictions for that property-tax discount reinstated in Ohio’s biennial budget, the city law needed updating to preserve the utility discounts, he said.

    Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.