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Published: Wednesday, 5/1/2013

COUNCIL ACTION

City hikes water rates 56.5% over 5 years

Suburbanites also to pay big increase

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Water rates for Toledoans and suburbanites will increase slightly more than 13 percent a year for four years, and then an additional 4.5 percent in 2018. But a decision on pay raises for the mayor and city councilmen will wait for at least two more weeks.

A majority of Toledo City Council on Tuesday approved the water-rate increases, which will, by the end of the five years, cost the average household an additional $125 a year compared to what is paid today. The increases are to pay for more than $300 million in repairs and upgrades mandated by the Ohio EPA for the city's drinking-water plant in East Toledo.

Councilman Tyrone Riley cast the only no vote.

“The reason I voted no was simple,” Mr. Riley said. “As a council, we had talked about a performance audit and so I felt that to impose a water-rate increase of this magnitude and scope that we should have had the benefit of a performance audit. ... That is forthcoming but the information would be valuable to decide how much to raise the rate.”

Also on Tuesday, Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson, over the objections of two councilmen, put off a vote on proposed pay increases for councilmen and the mayor. She said she wanted to further review how those proposed increases would fit into the budget. Councilmen Joe McNamara and Mike Craig voted against the delay.

Those pay requests have become fodder in the 2013 race for mayor.

Mayor Mike Bell, who is seeking re-election and is challenged by Mr. McNamara and Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, said he “has no opinion” on the requests.

“It is for whoever is the next mayor,” Mr. Bell said.

The city’s salary review commission, which is required by city charter to meet once every four years, proposed that the mayor’s salary be increased 11 percent, to $136,000 from $122,400, and the salary of a councilman go up 18 percent, to $32,500 from $27,500. The mayor’s salary was reduced from $136,000 to $122,400 four years ago upon the committee's recommendation and council approval at that time.

On Saturday, Ms. Lopez attacked Mr. Bell and Mr. McNamara for supporting the proposed pay increases even though the mayor has never voiced support and Mr. McNamara has consistently opposed any pay raises for councilmen or the mayor.

“The unemployment rate is still at 9.1 percent and we have asked rank and file to take concessions, so now is not the time to take pay raises,” Mr. McNamara said.

Ms. Lopez, who attended council’s meeting, said she opposes the culture at city hall and criticized the water-rate increases.

“I think the salaries are inappropriate,” she said. “I think the fact that there was no audit done before a vote was taken regarding the water rates is a reflection of poor leadership. ... Mayor Bell took office in 2010 and therefore it’s a failure of leadership not to identify these issues early on in an administration and now it has become catastrophic.”

Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat said Ms. Lopez was mistaken.

“We introduced legislation in 2010 that called for 9.9 percent increases a year in water rates for 2011 through 2014, and at the same time, we introduced legislation for sewer rates and storm sewer rates,” Mr. Herwat said. “Council delayed acting until Feb. 8, 2011. We had actually brought in a chunk of the roof that fell from the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, so in his first year as mayor, Mike Bell made a presentation to council about the serious problems at the drinking water plant.”

Council at that time dropped down the mayor's request for water rate increases to 9 percent a year. Also that year, sanitary sewer rates were increased 3 percent annually for four years, with a fixed surcharge to pay for the Toledo Waterways Initiative. Storm sewer rates were left unchanged.

“To say we have ignored this problem is absolutely incorrect and a total fabrication,” Mr. Herwat said after council’s meeting. “We made council aware in 2010 and they made the decision that they did not want to raise the rates that high and this year, the Ohio EPA came in with findings.”

The latest rate increases, which will affect about 500,000 customers, begin Jan. 1 and continue through 2018. Each community served by Toledo would be charged the same percentage increase.

After council voted to increase the water rates, it authorized $146 million in repairs and upgrades to the city drinking-water plant in East Toledo.

Council voted 12-0 on 14 ordinances that authorize the upgrades and repairs at the drinking water plant.

“These are the most critical ones identified by the EPA,” Mr. Herwat said.

Among the mandated upgrades is a 40 million gallon redundant treatment unit, which will cost $96.6 million. It is needed to take the system’s 80 million gallon treatment unit, which was built in 1941, offline for repairs.

The Ohio EPA called the condition of the plant’s roof above the flocculation and filter buildings a major problem. The city has approved borrowing $15 million for that project.

Council on Tuesday voted 12-0 to issue $190 million in bonds to pay the work and other repairs that will be sent later to council for approval.

Mr. Herwat said it will be the largest bond issue in the city's history when it is finalized in June.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com,

or 419-724-6171.



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