WAUSEON — City officials may cancel part of a water and sewer rate increase scheduled to take effect April 1 because Wauseon's utility fund is in better health than was feared when the hike was approved last year.
But cutting the increase in a typical household's monthly bill from about $21 to about $15 may not be enough to satisfy residents who protested rising utility rates during a city council meeting last week.
The main target of their ire is the city's plan to build stormwater-retention lagoons and add a sludge tank at its sewage-treatment plant to cut down on how often the system discharges raw sewage into a local creek because it can't keep up with water flow from rainstorms.
Construction bids that city officials opened Thursday for that project yielded an apparent winner, Mosser Construction of Fremont, whose $2.73 million bid was nearly $600,000 less than an engineer's estimate for the work.
Jon Schamp, Wauseon's finance director, said the award of that contract and revision of the utility-rate increases are both likely to be considered by city council when it meets Monday. Council's utilities committee was to review both items first, during a meeting planned for 8:15 a.m. tomorrow.
The city developed the sewer plant project under orders from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to reduce the sewage overflows, but speakers among the several dozen who jammed council's chambers when it met last week said the state agency should give Wauseon more time to solve that problem, rather than impose rate increases during hard times.
Tom Bechill, a South Park Lane resident, said his city utility bill has gone up “30 to 40 percent” in recent years even though his children have moved out of the house. With rising taxes, high unemployment, and lower pay for those who still have jobs, higher water and sewer bills are just unmanageable for many, he said.
“Somebody's got to be able to call off the dogs,” Mr. Bechill said. “Timing is everything. Now is not the time for this.”
But city officials and a representative of the city's engineering consultant, Toledo-based Arcadis, said Ohio EPA has consistently rejected time-extension pleas. Had Wauseon not come up with the current plan, they said, the city would be facing an even bigger expense to continue with a project begun years ago to separate its storm drains and sanitary sewers entirely.
“Ohio EPA has not stepped off their position that they want this project done by July, 2011,” said Timothy Harmsen, a certified project manager with Arcadis.
Were Wauseon to simply defy the state agency, he said, the city could be vulnerable to hefty non-compliance fines, especially if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were to step in.
The sewer plant project is intended to reduce weather-related sewage overflows to no more than four times per year.
The combined water and sewer bill for a typical Wauseon household rose from $43.37 to $54.90 in November, and is scheduled to go up to $75.81 next month. The next increase includes a $15 debt-repayment assessment that Mr. Schamp said is based on the sewer project's original $3.3 million estimate.
The assessment “could be subject to change once we lock the OWDA loan in,” the finance director said, referring to low-interest Ohio Water Development Authority financing the city will use for the project. The outlook “is certainly better than if we were looking in the other direction,” he said.
The rest of the scheduled rate increase was based on a “worst-case” scenario for the city utility funds, Mr. Schamp told council last week, and the situation now appears to be better.
“We're going to review the fund balances and see if we can postpone the April rate increases for water and sewer, to avoid the double impact,” he said. “The debt charge is where our hands are tied.”
State Sen. Steve Buehrer (R., Delta), who is also Wauseon's law director, said the city's sewer situation is far from unique in his legislative district, which sprawls across nine northwest Ohio counties and part of a tenth.
“Every community is somewhere along this path,” Mr. Buehrer said. “I can't think of a community in my district that is not affected, and it's hard on all of them. But the Ohio EPA is enforcing the federal requirements.”
“I don't like to see this either,” Mayor Jerry Dehnbostel said. “I pay the same rates as everyone else, as everyone on council does.”
But Tim Dennis, the owner of several hundred rental housing units in Wauseon, passed out draft letters that council's audience members could send to their elected representatives and said more appeals should be made.
“We need to write our elected representatives. We need to make a fuss,” he said toward the one-hour discussion's conclusion. “The basin, to me, is a complete waste of money, but unless we get time to do it right, we can't even afford the basin.”
Mr. Harmsen said, however, that he has no reason to believe Ohio EPA will hear any appeals.
“There's a permit that's been issued,” he said. “We asked for an extension, and we were told, ‘No.'”
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