With the city staring at a $257 million price tag to fix various parts of its aging drinking water treatment plant, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell on Monday night said he is committed to whatever rate hike would be needed to pay for the long list of repairs.
“I am committed to whatever rate increases are necessary,” Mr. Bell told City Council's utilities committee and representatives from the Ohio EPA.
Mr. Bell - who successfully pushed annual water and sewer rate increases through in 2010 – said previous city leaders ignored the need to raise water rates, which led to a deterioration of the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant in East Toledo. His comments Monday came three weeks after the mayor released his proposed 2013 general fund budget, which he proclaimed was in balance with no new taxes and no fee increases.
Although Mr. Bell pledged to increase rates, no potential figures were discussed and no decisions were made Monday.
The city water rates increased 9 percent each in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and is already scheduled to go up 9 percent again next year. Much of that funding was necessitated by EPA-required upgrades to the city's sewer and storm water systems.
The Ohio EPA, in two scathing reports last month, blasted the city of Toledo’s drinking water treatment plant. The agency warned city officials that the facility has operated for years without preventative maintenance that could lead to a catastrophic failure. Among the more expensive things the Ohio EPA wants Toledo to do is an expansion of the plant so that that addition could be used while other sections are shut down and repaired.
“I know that the reality is we have an EPA report that tells us we have things to deal with and fast,” Mr. Bell said after the 90-minute committee hearing. “We don't have the money, [and] we need to get this done.”
Several Bell administration officials detailed the EPA's findings – dancing around the issue of a rate increase for most of the meeting without mentioning it before Mr. Bell made the pledge to increase the cost of water for the about 500,000 consumers in Toledo and four counties – Lucas, Wood, Fulton, and Monroe. A small number of people in Lenawee County also get Toledo's water.
Public Utilities Director Dave Welch told council that the EPA cited Toledo's water rates as the fourth-lowest in the state. The only places where water is cheaper in Ohio are Avon Lake, Aberdeen, and Stratton.
“Ten or 15 years ago we had $100 million in those [water] funds,” Mr. Welch said.
Mr. Bell added: “The bottom line is that we ate our seed money.... now we are trying to replace that.”
Council President Joe McNamara, who chairs that committee, said the water treatment plant needs serious attention but the ratepayers also need to be considered.
“I think we absolutely have to do whatever is necessary to maintain the integrity of our drinking water but affordability to the ratepayer has to be a consideration in any rate structure,” Mr. McNamara said.
Councilman Tom Waniewski gave Mayor Bell a “thumbs up” after the meeting and said “good work.”
During the hearing, he said the council and administration needs to “get off the dime quickly” and that the “kicking the can down the road” was irresponsible.
The EPA said condition of the plant’s roof above the flocculation and filter buildings was a major concern. City officials seemed flabbergasted about that criticism since the EPA had already approved a $15 million loan for the city for that project. Toledo City Council voted in October to take the loan from the Ohio EPA Water Supply Revolving Loan Account and/or the Ohio Water Development Authority. The interest rate could be about 3 percent.
Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat said the city has immediate plans to spend $40 million at the plant in addition to the $15 million loan for the roof.
The Ohio EPA sent two teams to review the water treatment plant because of a failure in March of the pump station in Jerusalem Township that sends raw Lake Erie water to the Collins Park plant. The agency is asking the city to make upgrades to that facility as well.
The other Ohio EPA findings include a lack of reliability because of the age and condition of essential equipment, not enough on-site gaseous chlorine, and an inadequate amount of on-site aluminum sulfate storage. The water treatment plant also has an “obsolete” supervisory control and data acquisition system, the EPA said.
The chlorine facility plans are 90 percent completed and the city plans to ask the EPA to forgo its request for a new on-site aluminum sulfate 30-day storage facility since it has a 14-day supply and the manufacture of the chemical is about a mile from the plant.
Councilman D. Michael Collins suggested the city go after millions in unpaid water bills for the past several years. Mr. Welch said the city has aggressively gone after unpaid water bills, increased its shut-offs to 100 or 200 a day, and criminally prosecuted people who steal water.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com or 419-724-6171.