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Published: Wednesday, 7/10/2002

Toledo voters give thumbs up to sewer-lawsuit issue

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Toledo voters yesterday overwhelmingly approved a measure that clears the way for settlement of a lawsuit filed by the federal government and for a renovation of Toledo's antiquated sewer system.

A record low turnout of voters - 11 percent - cast ballots in the special election.

It was required under Section 79 of the Toledo charter, which requires voters to approve projects which will cost more than 15 percent of the average annual city budget.

The measure passed with 78.7 percent (15,530) support; 21.3 percent (4,196) voted against it.

The settlement that led to the election requires the city to spend $400 million over the next 15 years on sewer improvements and $500,000 on fines to the federal and state governments.

“The voters of Toledo had the opportunity to participate in making the decision, and that's the most important thing,” said Peter Ujvagi, president of Toledo council. “Am I disappointed that only 11 percent of people voted, yes, but the genius of democracy is choice and opportunity.

Councilman Gene Zmuda, a Republican, agreed.

“The community reaffirming what we had done strengthens the democratic process, quite frankly. Despite the naysayers who had concerns about seniors coming out and opposing it, I think they understood the issue and recognized that this was the best decision the city could make. I am pleased,” Mr. Zmuda said.

There was no organized opposition to the measure.

City officials have predicted that sewer rates would double to pay for the improvements authorized by yesterday's vote, but they have not set a firm figure because the renovation project is still on the drawing board.

The U.S. and state environmental protection agencies complained that the city's sewer system discharges of raw sewage into waterways during heavy downpours, and that renovation of the piping system and Toledo's sewage treatment plant are required to comply with federal law.

Backers of the measure said repairs would also solve chronic flooding and sewage backups into basements after heavy rainfall.

“We held off and we fought tooth and nail over the last two years to get the best possible agreement we could for the citizens of Toledo, and with the new mayor, we were able to work together to bring it to a conclusion,” Mr. Ujvagi, a Democrat, said. “The package that we negotiated with the Justice Department and with the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA is in the best interest of the city of Toledo, and it is very satisfying that the citizens of Toledo recognized that.”

The 11 percent turnout breaks the previous all-time low for a citywide election set in the May primary election, when 13.1 percent of Toledo voters went to polls. With just one issue on the ballot, voters registered their preferences on small paper ballots - the first time such ballots were used in a citywide election since the mid-1960s, said Joe Kidd, director of the Lucas County board of elections.

In addition to making counting easier, paper ballots saved the $70,000 expense of preparing and moving the county's hulking voting machines - each of which weigh nearly 1,000 pounds - from their storage warehouse to voting locations around the city. The city is responsible for costs associated with the election, which, Mr. Kidd said, are expected to reach $157,000, or $7.96 per vote cast.



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