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Published: Monday, 2/7/2011

Council to vote Tuesday on plans to boost water rates

The deadlock over Toledo's seemingly inevitable utility-rate increases could be decided Tuesday.

City council is expected to consider the Bell administration's latest proposal and a less restrictive one proposed by councilmen Mike Craig and Rob Ludeman when it meets at One Government Center at 4 p.m.

The former calls for raises of 9 percent for water, 6.75 percent with an additional surcharge for sanitary sewer, and 7.5 percent for storm water.

The Craig-Ludeman alternative, which is in response to the administration's plan, calls for increases of 5 percent for water, 3 percent with an additional surcharge for sanitary sewer, and zero for storm water.

On Jan. 25, Councilman Lindsay Webb left chambers unannounced without casting her vote, resulting in what appeared to be a 6-5 defeat of the plan backed by Mayor Mike Bell.

Had it been 6-6, the mayor had the authority to cast the deciding vote. But Ms. Webb said the matter was too important to be left up to him.

The measure then was returned to the council's utility and public service committee and heard by the board's committee-of-the-whole during a session that lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours Monday.

Included was a request for $210,000 in emergency funds to keep the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant's roof from collapsing.

Officials suggest stabilizing the roof's interior with lumber, which was characterized as a makeshift repair likely to last only until the wood rots in three to five years. The plan also calls for netting to catch falling debris.

"We are fearful one of our employees is going to get hurt or worse from falling panels," Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat told councilmen.

The ideal fix is a new roof. But with a cost of $3.6 million and the city mired in one of its worst recessions, officials said that might have to wait.

Much of the work for water and sewer improvements is overdue. Much of the sewage work stems from court litigation initiated years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the federal government cracked down on excessive algae-causing sewage spills by Toledo and other Great Lakes cities.

The federal agency has granted Toledo a four-year extension, to 2020 from 2016, for compliance with a U.S. District Court decree on the sewage improvements.

Toledo is seeking a second extension of an unspecified length to help keep costs from rising too high, claiming the city has faced a unique hardship after the historic 2008 collapse of the financial industry, Councilman Joe McNamara said.

Ms. Webb gave Bell administration officials an earful at Monday's committee-on-the-whole hearing, accusing it of stonewalling the council on several key points.

"My intention on walking out on the vote was to get us back to talking about the issues," Ms. Webb said.

Mr. Craig and others said they were befuddled over how the system had fallen into such disrepair.

"This didn't happen overnight. It's not going to get cured overnight," Mr. Craig said.

Approving a 5 percent raise for water rates instead of the administration's proposal for the 9 percent hike will require $80 million in cuts to the city's water system, which serves Toledo and several area suburbs.

"The problems exist now because there was not the political will [to fix them] in the past," Mr. Herwat said. "We can no longer continue to bury our heads in the sand and not realize we have serious problems with our infrastructure."

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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