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Published: Friday, 4/19/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Toledoans to know by May if water rates rise

Final vote affecting 500K residents will come from council April 30

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Metro Toledo’s 500,000 residents should know April 30 if their water rates are going up.

Toledo City Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson told The Blade after a two-hour hearing Thursday she intends to bring the matter out of committee and ask for a final vote from council that day.

The rate increases would begin Jan. 1, 2014, and continue through 2018. The work would create 683 construction jobs for each of those five years, Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat said.

The Bell administration has proposed annual rate increases of more than 13 percent for four years and 4.5 percent in 2018 to help pay for long-overdue fixes to the city’s Collins Park water-treatment plant, as well as a massive distribution network that serves Toledo and several neighboring communities in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Each community served by Toledo would be charged the same percentage increase, Dave Welch, Toledo public utilities director, said.

The city, in its attempt to avoid litigation over federal Clean Water Act violations, has identified more than $264 million in repairs to start phasing in immediately.

A senior Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official who attended the hearing characterized those repairs as a “triage” that will only help keep an already-decrepit system from failing.

“We would consider this triage,” Beth Messer, assistant chief of the Ohio EPA’s drinking water program, said. “Our authority doesn’t really come into play until there is a risk to public health and that’s where you are.”

The city faces litigation over numerous violations until it gets caught up on major repairs designed to keep the public’s water supply from being compromised.

“The situation here is pretty obvious. From the standpoint of the administration, we would like to have you move this legislation forward as soon as possible,” Mayor Mike Bell told council.

Last year, the water plant’s roof nearly collapsed. It was patched together. A mesh net was installed beneath it to catch falling debris. Dozens of pipes and valves are decades old. Computers operating the system were obsolete years ago, officials have said.

“The place is an absolute disaster. There’s no getting around that,” Councilman D. Michael Collins said.

The city plans to use money generated by the higher rates as leverage to sell bonds while interest rates are at or near historic lows.

Officials have said much of the work should have been phased in by past administrations, but said there’s not much value in pointing fingers now.

Local Tea Party activist John McAvoy, of Millbury, didn’t deny the work was necessary. But he demanded the city first have a performance audit done as a measure of accountability to gauge how money has been spent. Then, he said, it could decide if a rate increase is still necessary.

“There’s no debate we need to have this work done,” Kathleen Sallah, of Sylvania Township, said. “But I am tired of being held hostage by threats that there will be no water.”

She said public officials should live up to campaign promises for performance audits.

“We need an audit of every department, but especially the water department,” she said.

An hour before the hearing, Ms. Hicks-Hudson joined Councilman Lindsay Webb at a news conference in which three pieces of legislation were announced to aid consumers with a probable rate increase.

One item calls for a “ratepayer bill of rights.” Among other things, it would ensure water customers get the option of a deferred payment plan and at least 10 days notice in advance of any disconnection. Another proposal calls for tenants locked in disputes with their landlords to pay off water bills with rental money they might otherwise withhold and put into escrow. The other piece of legislation calls for the creation of an appeals board for water cases.

“If the administration is asking more from our residents, they deserve more protection,” Ms. Webb said.

The Collins Park water-treatment plant has been operating continuously since 1941. The problem with the crumbling roof, though, could have caused an interruption that would have resulted in a boil-water advisory for several months, officials have said.

More than half of the distribution system was built before 1930. It averages 300 water main breaks a year. Those cause service disruptions, damage roads, and drive up costs, Robin Whitney, Toledo commissioner of engineering services, said.

Ms. Messer told council she was glad to make the long drive from Columbus “when it means better public health for 500,000 people.”

“I think what the administration is doing is trying to avoid ending up in court,” Ms. Hicks-Hudson said after the meeting.

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



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