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Published: Tuesday, 8/5/2014

Council looks to temper rate hikes to fund sewer project

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo City Council members Monday got their first look at the Collins administration’s proposed six-year rate increase to finance the final third of the city’s $521 million sewerage project known as the Toledo Waterways Initiative.

Council had some questions about what, if anything, can still be done to soften the blow.

A discussion on the rate plan is planned for 2 p.m. today during council’s bimonthly agenda-review meeting. Officials said it will feature a video presentation about the program.

The plan calls for Toledo homeowners to pay about $13 a quarter more during each of the next six years. For most senior citizens and disabled residents who qualify for the state’s homestead exemption, the impact will be a little more than $5 a year through 2020.

Councilman Jack Ford urged the administration to seek more delinquent payments. About 2 percent of residents on city sewer are behind in payments or have stopped making them.

Most councilmen seemed exhausted Monday by a lengthy presentation of an issue that emerged too late to make it on the meeting’s agenda, an interim report about the weekend’s historic water crisis.

Councilman Rob Ludeman said it will be even more difficult to reject a rate increase now because of the massive algae contamination that overwhelmed the city’s water intake, resulting in the unprecedented warnings against drinking the city’s tap water. Sewage spills are a contributor to algae.

“Will our water be cleaner [by completing the sewer project]?” Mr. Ludeman asked. “Yeah.”

Councilman Tyrone Riley said he understands the need to complete the project, as well as the city’s lack of alternatives from a legal standpoint.

The sewage project is a result of a 2002 federal court order, which ended 11 years of litigation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over federal Clean Water Act violations. Failure to comply would lead to hefty sanctions and fines. “I understand,” Mr. Riley said. “But customers are going to look at the bottom line.”

Jay Sienkiewicz, 41, a West Toledo electrician, said he’s having trouble keeping pace with rising utility bills. Rates have steadily increased since he bought his house 20 years ago. Being single, he isn’t using more utilities because of a family, he said.

“It’s extreme,” he told councilmen. “The other thing you have to remember is, you’re pushing people outside the city.”

Given Toledo’s economy, a 2 percent delinquency rate isn’t that bad, Mr. Sienkiewicz said.

The Toledo Waterway Initiative has been under construction since 2003 and is scheduled for completion in 2020.

The Clean Water Act violations against the city are for decades of filthy sewage spills into the Maumee River, Ottawa River, Swan Creek, and other metro-area tributaries that flow into western Lake Erie. Toledo is one of many cities in the Great Lakes region required to do a better job of capturing and treating waste people flush down their toilets.

The city will be in default of the court order if the rate plan isn’t approved, said Don Moline, the city’s public utilities commissioner.

City voters in 2002 approved moving ahead with the plan, which calls for unprecedented improvements to the city’s Bay View Wastewater Treatment Plant on Summit Street and an overall expansion of the city’s sewerage network.

The project will eliminate overflows in all but rare and major storm events. For decades, untreated waste spilled into the tributaries after nearly every rain.

The rate increases are nothing new: They have been phased in since construction began, often at higher rates. The new rate plan calls for 7.1 percent annual increases through 2019 and a 7.9 percent increase in 2020.

By 2020, average homeowners in the city — defined as those who produce 3,000 cubic feet of sewage per quarter, a volume typical for a family of four — will pay $228.14 every three months for sewage, up from the current rate of $150.05. That $78.09 increase breaks down to an average of $13.02 a year for each of the next six years.

Those who qualify for the homestead exemption would pay $89.74 on average for sewage per quarter in 2020, up from the current rate of $59.02 every three months. That’s an average of $5.12 more a year over six years.

The timetable laid out by the utilities department calls for the rate plan to get its first reading before the full council on Aug. 12, with a second reading and final vote expected Aug. 26.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com 419-724-6079, or on Twitter @ecowriterohio.



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