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Area leadership backs regional water agreement

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    Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken gives a thumbs up as he and leaders from Toledo and the suburban communities that buy its water sign a memorandum of understanding to form the Toledo Area Water Authority Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at the Toledo Chamber of Commerce office. With him are fellow commissioners Tina Skeldon Wozniak and Carol Contrada.

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    Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, left, and Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough shake hands while signing a memorandum of understanding to form the Toledo Area Water Authority on Wednesday at the Toledo Chamber of Commerce office.

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    Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and leaders of the suburban communities that buy its water sign a memorandum of understanding to form the Toledo Area Water Authority onWednesday.

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    A memorandum of understanding to form the Toledo Area Water Authority lays on a table after being signed by leaders from Toledo and the suburban communities that buy its water, Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at the Toledo Chamber of Commerce office.

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    Maumee Mayor Rich Carr speaks before he and leaders from Toledo and the suburban communities that buy its water sign a memorandum of understanding to form the Toledo Area Water Authority Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at the Toledo Chamber of Commerce office.

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Toledo City Council members mulled the benefits and drawbacks of a regional water authority Wednesday, hours after Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and leaders from the communities that buy Toledo water signed a historic agreement to move toward such a system.

Toledo City Council and neighboring legislative bodies also must sign on before the Toledo Area Water Authority can become a reality, and council members have a lot of questions they want answered before they vote.

They would like to know how such an entity would impact their citizens’ water rates; how secure the jobs and benefits of city water staff will be once they become employees of the new system, and what selling the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant could mean for Toledo.

“I think it may not be hyperbole to say that this may be the decision that each of us makes that has the most long-reaching effect on our city and on our region,” council member Sandy Spang said.

Officials from Toledo, Lucas County, Maumee, Perrysburg, Sylvania, Whitehouse, Fulton County, Monroe County, and the Northwestern Water and Sewer District have been meeting since May, 2017, with a consultant hired by the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce to help them reach a consensus. But talks about a regional water system have been swirling for decades.

“This is a big accomplishment for our region,” said Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough, who spearheaded the most recent effort. “Water has the potential of being a great asset to build business, attract it to northwest Ohio, and also provide a safe, redundant water source for our residents.”

VIDEO: Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz on Toledo Area Water Authority

The Toledo Area Water Authority aims to equalize water rates across all communities within eight years and pursue a second water source, whether that involves building a new water intake or tapping into an existing one. A new water treatment plant also could be constructed to provide backup to the existing Collins Park Water Treatment Plant.

Mayor Kapszukiewicz said Wednesday that the city cannot afford to walk away from a regional water system. If it does, the suburban customers will find their water elsewhere and leave Toledo taxpayers responsible for all costs associated with the Collins Park plant.

“The world has changed, and in order to protect the best interests of the citizens of Toledo, I believe we need to move forward with a regional system,” he said. “I think to do otherwise would put the citizens of Toledo at great risk of facing water rates that are triple what they are today.”

The memorandum that Mr. Kapszukiewicz and others signed outlines a plan for how the Toledo Area Water Authority would operate.

It would have an appointed board of seven, with two appointed by Toledo’s mayor. The Lucas County commissioners would appoint one; Sylvania, Maumee, and Whitehouse together would appoint one; Perrysburg would appoint one; Monroe County would appoint one, and the Fulton County commissioners and Northwestern Water and Sewer District board members also jointly would appoint one.

The agreement also aims to establish an affordability program for low-income families as well as a plan to replace lead water lines.

Council members voiced support for some parts of the plan, including the promise of stable, predictable rates. Several said they were hopeful that collaborating on water could pave the way for regional partnerships in other areas.

But others expressed skepticism about how much a regional water system would benefit Toledoans.

Under the proposed operating structure, all city water staff would become employees of the new authority. While there is language in the agreement that says the new body would “assume and honor all collective bargaining agreements,” council President Matt Cherry and councilman Larry Sykes both pointed out that a new board could remove that safeguard.

Mr. Cherry also asked Eric Rothstein, the consultant hired by the chamber, about the value of Toledo’s water treatment plant and other water-related assets. The Toledo Area Water Authority would either buy the plant out front or take ownership at the end of a 30-year lease, according to terms proposed in the memorandum of understanding.

Mr. Rothstein said there would need to be analysis done to determine accurate valuation.

“You're asking this body to vote on legislation to enter into this agreement before we know what our assets are worth,” Mr. Cherry said.

VIDEO: Consultant Eric Rothstein on the Toledo Area Water Authority

The memorandum of understanding sets March 15 as the date by which all participating municipalities vote to establish the new system. Once that vote takes place, a petition will then be filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court to officially form the new authority. Mr. Rothstein said Wednesday that he hopes the Toledo Area Water Authority can be fully functioning by early 2019.

Mayor Kapszukiewicz told council members that while he believes Toledo must be on board with regional water, it will only become a reality if they approve.

“We will move forward with this memorandum of understanding only after, and only if, city council believes it to be a wise course of action,” he said.

Contact Sarah Elms at selms@theblade.com419-724-6103, or on Twitter @BySarahElms.

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