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Published: Tuesday, 1/18/2011

New proposal on water rates lacks backing on Toledo council

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Even though a number of Toledo councilmen have negotiated a compromise with Mayor Mike Bell on his proposed water and sewer-rate increases, there is still not a majority of councilmen pledging support for the plan that will hike the cost for Toledoans and thousands of people well beyond the city limits.

Of the 12 councilmen, three said they would support the plan, two are "leaning against" it, two said they will oppose it, and four are undecided. The 12th could not be reached for comment Monday night.

This newest proposal, released Friday, would increase water rates by 9 percent, sanitary sewer rates by 6.75 percent plus an additional fixed amount, and storm-water rates by 7.5 percent.

The rates would increase this year and by the same amounts in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Councilmen Joe McNamara, Lindsay Webb, and Phillip Copeland said they would vote yes for the new plan.

"At this time I am willing to support it," said Mr. McNamara, chairman of council's public utilities committee. "I never doubted that there was a need to fulfill the terms of the consent decree.

" I just wanted to see if there was a way the administration would explore making the rates not as high and to be more transparent about how ratepayer dollars are being spent."

He said the new proposal is more transparent because it "explicitly lists" what money would be used for a $521 million sewer upgrade that was started in 2005 through a federal consent decree.

"I still think the administration should find ways to extend the time period to complete the waterways initiative," Mr. McNamara said.

Councilman Mike Craig said he would vote no because the new plan is not a compromise.

He said the new rate structure would cost the same as the previous amount, which he blasted as far too excessive.

"The new proposal is just a different way to write the bill," Mr. Craig said. "I will vote no because all it does is break out the portion for the [consent decree]."

Mr. Craig said the new structure shows that most of the additional revenue would be used to upgrade and maintain other parts of the water and sewer system, which he said should be scrutinized further.

He likened that work to discretionary spending the city has cut in most other departments.

"More than half of it is not going to the consent-decree work, so that means you don't have to have that money immediately," he said. "You could spread that out; it could go up 2 percent or 3 percent and spread it out over a longer period."

If the new proposal is approved, the average Toledo residential quarterly bill for 3,000 cubic feet of water would be $192.06 this year, $204.87 in 2012, $218.63 in 2013, and $233.42 in 2014.

The average bill for city residents with a homestead exemption would be $74.94 this year, $79.47 in 2012, $84.33 in 2013, and $89.55 in 2014.

The homestead exemption is based on 1,000 cubic feet of water, which is the average used and the minimum amount billed.

Those amounts all include a "TWI fixed," which stands for Toledo Waterways Initiative. It would be a $15.82 quarterly charge for regular users throughout all four years.

The quarterly charge would be $11.87 for users with homestead exemptions.

Mr. Bell's previous plan was to raise rates annually through 2014 at the rate of 9 percent for water, 12.5 percent for sanitary sewer, and 9.9 percent for storm water. It did not have the TWI charge broken out to a separate category.

Also planning to vote against the new plan is Councilman Rob Ludeman.

Councilmen Steven Steel and D. Michael Collins said they were both leaning against the new plan.

Mr. Ludeman said he would propose that the rates increase annually through 2014 by 5 percent for water and 5 percent for sanitary sewer, and would not increase for storm water.

"I just feel that the first proposal was way too high," Mr. Ludeman said. "I think this new proposal is still too high. I just don't see how you can do this to consumers in the economy we are in.

"If you gouge people, your delinquencies are going to go up, so you have defeated what you wanted to do, which is bring in money to maintain the system," he added.

Mr. Steel said he liked the idea of listing the TWI charge but still thinks the rates are too high.

Councilman Tom Waniewski, who could not be reached for comment Monday, on Dec. 21 was among a majority of councilmen who voted against a 9 percent increase for the water rate. After the defeat, council didn't bother taking votes on the sewer rates that night.

However, Ms. Webb said Mr. Waniewski was involved in reaching the current proposal with the Bell administration.

Councilmen Wilma Brown, Paula Hicks-Hudson, George Sarantou, and Adam Martinez said Monday they were undecided.

Mr. Sarantou said the cost for consumers with the new plan appears to be less after the four years than it did under the previous proposal -- but not by much.

"We are going to have a hearing on it, and I want to go in with an open mind; but, quite frankly, it is not much different," he said. "I have not made a decision yet, but I did vote against the first one because I just thought it was too much."

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



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