Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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Politics

Past votes by leaders delayed upgrades

Collins, others rejected rate hikes for repairs

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    Mayor Collins — then a councilman — was critical of the sewer rate hikes initially.

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    One of the six pumps in the high service pumping station at the Collins Park water treatment facility.

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    Former Mayor Mike Bell

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CTY-water02pCollins-Park-water-treatment-fa

One of the six pumps in the high service pumping station at the Collins Park water treatment facility.

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Nearly as thick as the algae that threatens Lake Erie was a new sense of urgency to protect our water supply.

Politicians made pronouncements about ensuring that toxins won’t threaten residents again, and criticized federal and state authorities for not addressing the cause of the algae blooms.

But locally, politics have frequently entered discussions about making necessary repairs and upgrades to the Toledo water system, including the Collins Park Treatment Plant in East Toledo. Votes on water rate hikes were debated and delayed while the plant literally fell apart, and Mr. Collins was in the midst of those debates.

Mike Bell doesn’t want to say he told you so. But he told you so.

“Was it a shock that something happened? No,” Mr. Bell said.

TOLEDO WATER CRISIS: Get the full story with articles, photos, and videos

RELATED ARTICLE: Toledo seeks return to normalcy

In late 2010, the Bell administration raised alarms about the water system, and called for 9.9 percent water rate increases from 2011 to 2014. City leaders criticized past administrations for holding rates too low and neglecting the infrastructure.

At the time, Mr. Collins — then a councilman — was critical of the rate hikes. He joined seven other council members who voted down in December, 2010, a Bell compromise of 9 percent increases, which was part of a package with higher sewer and storm water rates.

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Mayor Collins — then a councilman — was critical of the sewer rate hikes initially.

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Mr. Bell showed visible frustration at that vote.

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Former Mayor Mike Bell

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“Any time we attempted to bring that issue and try to push it forward, it was met with a whole lot of resistance,” he said on Monday.

City councilmen Rob Ludeman and Mike Craig proposed smaller water rate increases instead. Asked if they regretted that after the weekend’s water emergency, both said no.

“It was more of an economic issue for me at that time on what might be affordable to the consumer,” Mr. Ludeman said of the proposal.

Mr. Craig said that upgrades to the plant funded by earlier water rate increases wouldn’t have prevented the weekend’s emergency, and pointed out that council eventually agreed to the increases.

But not without drama. In January, 2011, City Council again rejected the proposed rate increases by a 6-5 vote, when Councilman Lindsay Webb left the chambers during the vote, blocking Mr. Bell’s ability to cast a tie breaker. Mr. Collins voted against it.

“What happened [this weekend] is not directly related to the plant,” Ms. Webb said.

Councilmen said they were trying to balance funding needed improvements at the plant with residents’ ability to pay during a recession. They eventually approved the rate increases in February, 2011.

Later that year, a pump station that brings raw water to the plant failed, nearly allowing contaminated water into city pipes. At the time, Mr. Collins expressed skepticism about the extent of the problem.

In November, 2011, the Ohio EPA released critical reports of the treatment plant, saying the building had not been maintained, creating a situation that could lead to a catastrophic failure. Among the many problems was a roof that was falling apart.

Mr. Collins said on Monday that he toured the facility at the time and saw for himself its decrepit condition. It was then, he said, that he realized how much work it would take to renovate the plant.

Repairs were approved for the facility, but more needed to be done. Last year, the Bell administration proposed significant rate increases again for water.

Council, including Mr. Collins, eventually approved a five-year hike that will increase rates more than 50 percent over five years, and approved $150 million in repairs for the plant.

Mr. Collins said he wanted a plan in place within six months to modernize the treatment plant, and said current funds likely are inadequate to make those improvements. That will be painful for northwest Ohio residents,

“We are not going to allow this to be the cornerstone of the economic collapse of the city of Toledo,” he said.

“Fixing this is not going to be a simplistic situation. Failure to fix it will be the death knell of our community.”

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: nrosenkrans@theblade.com, or 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.

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