Rossford residents don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues, but almost everyone in the community agrees on one thing: They are paying too much for water.
Councilman Bob Densic, while on the campaign trail in the fall, heard from many people who made it clear they were paying too much. Mr. Densic was surprised when a crying woman answered the door at one of the homes he visited.
The average monthly water bill in Rossford was $90 per month in 2013. By last year, the average had hiked to over $143 per month.
“Her husband was there, very somber,” he said. “They had lived in Rossford for over 40 years, and they had just then decided they had to move because they couldn’t afford to live here anymore. One of the things they talked about was their water bill.”
Crumbling infrastructure, the city’s contract with Northwestern Water & Sewer District, the 2014 water crisis, and the city of Toledo’s leverage as the owner and operator of the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant are just some of the factors in the equation, officials said.
The possibility of a regional water authority is encouraging to many, although it could take a few years to come to fruition. Until then, water rates in Rossford will likely continue to rise, and households will continue to pay more than their neighbors in Bowling Green and Perrysburg, and two or three times more than those in Oregon, Sylvania, and Maumee.
Mayor Neil MacKinnon’s monthly bill is over $200 in the summer for his family.
“It’s a burden on a lot of families, and it shouldn’t be,” Mayor MacKinnon said. “We need to find a way to solve this problem, and I think we need to look beyond the municipalities of northwest Ohio. We need the state and federal government to put some things on the back burner and focus on how we become the freshwater capital of the world.”
In 2013, the average monthly water bill in Rossford was about $90, based on 800 cubic feet. Rates have risen each year, with the average reaching $143.20 in 2017. 2018’s figure is expected to be about $150.
The average monthly water bill for a Rossford home based on 1,000 cubic feet was more than $130 in 2016. Oregon was the lowest at $48.04, followed by Bowling Green ($51.09), Sylvania ($68.60), Maumee ($96.67), and Perrysburg ($116.88). The monthly minimum charge for Toledo residents in 2016 was $21.08.
Rossford officials attributed the city’s high rates to issues that stretch back years.
The city’s contract with NWS was signed in December, 2010, when Bill Verbosky was mayor. Before the deal, the city was not only contracting with Toledo for water, but also maintenance of the water and sewer system. When a line broke, Rossford dipped into the general fund to fix the problem instead of charging residents an operating and maintenance fee.
But perhaps the primary problem for rising costs, and ultimately what led to joining NWS, was Rossford’s infrastructure deteriorating to dangerous levels.
“At the time, I think we had five areas where we were discharging raw sewage daily into streams and rivers,” city Administrator Mike Scott said. “The Ohio EPA was ready to do orders against us, which would have meant we had to do all the repairs Northwest did on our dime. Quite frankly, that would have bankrupted the city.”
NWS has completed $18 million worth of water and sewer improvements to date, and paid $2.8 million of the city’s debt upon taking over the water system. Those charges are passed to the consumer.
“It would have cost us boatloads more [to do construction on our own] because we’re not equipped like they are to do these major projects,” Mr. Scott said.
Getting water out to the Crossroads area when it began to develop posed another problem. Rossford needed the water, and Toledo knew it. Residents began paying a Toledo surcharge shortly after, and Rossford started giving Toledo 25 percent of the income tax from the area in the deal, according to city officials.
According to Toledo officials, the city’s joint economic development district with Rossford resulted in $71,958 going from Rossford to Toledo in 2017.
Mr. Scott said Toledo also passed double-digit rate increases down the line to other communities following the water crisis.
Toledo Public Utilities Director Ed Moore said joint economic development zones and other revenue sharing agreements, like the one at the Crossroads, are common practice, and could dissolve with a regional water authority.
“We had a similar agreement with Sylvania where we get revenue sharing from [ProMedica] Flower Hospital,” Mr. Moore said. “So it’s not uncommon.”
He also said all of the city’s first-block customers pay the same surcharge as Rossford.
“There is no additional charge,” he said. “They are a 75 percent surcharge customer. But there is no special rate for Rossford.”
About half of what Rossford residents pay goes to Toledo, and the other half goes to NWS, according to NWS.
Resident Angela Shapiro has lived in Rossford for three years and already has seen increases for her three-person household. Her December bill was over $170.
Ms. Shapiro said the high price of water is one of the community’s top complaints.
“It has [become a financial burden],” she said. “We’re already shouldering school taxes and increased assessments across the board, meaning our property taxes have gone up. As a primarily working class community, we’re definitely feeling that struggle. And we’re feeling it in our household as well.”
The idea of a regional water system in Toledo might not solve all of Rossford’s issues, but it could be a step in the right direction.
Leaders from Toledo, Lucas County, Maumee, Perrysburg, Sylvania, Whitehouse, Fulton County, Monroe County, and NWS have been meeting since May, 2017. The Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce hired a consultant to help each entity reach a deal.
The Toledo Area Water Authority is intended to eventually lower costs for Toledo’s suburbs. And while it would likely also lead to an increase in costs for city ratepayers, Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said last week the city cannot afford to walk away from a regional water system.
If it does, the suburban customers could find their water elsewhere, leaving Toledo taxpayers responsible for all costs associated with the Collins Park plant — and possibly tripling water rates in the city.
A memorandum of understanding was signed Jan. 31 by officials pledging their support.
“I’m optimistic about the talks with our neighbors and partners on regionalizing water,” Mayor MacKinnon said. “I hope when that’s all said and done, there will be a plan that helps Rossford. I think when you live on the largest chain of fresh water on Earth, water rates should not be some of the highest.”
NWS President Jerry Greiner said Toledo has been looking at this for some time, and he believes Mayor Kapszukiewicz has a good chance to be the one who finally signs the deal.
Oregon has its own water treatment facility and is not involved in regional talks. Still, city Administrator Mike Beazley supports the idea.
“Overall, I think for all the regional communities, for Toledo and the suburbs, the best way to protect both rates and supply is by coming together on a regional system,” Mr. Beazley said.
Maumee Mayor Rich Carr is also a proponent.
“You cannot have different communities being charged different rates; it’s just not right. With the regional water system, they will have a formula for charging based on the cost of the water, and it’ll be uniform across the area, and not used as a weapon for economic development or annexation,” he said.
While the players involved are optimistic, there are still hurdles to be cleared. A $5 million study needs funding and approval, and it will take up to two years to complete.
Mr. Densic supports the regional plan, but he’s also looking at options to potentially give customers some relief in the short term. He will soon ask council to consider pushing for performance audits for the Toledo water department and NWS.
“I want to see how they can do their job more effectively and efficiently so we can pass those savings on to the residents and businesses,” he said. “More than likely, those savings will impact the people who can least afford these water bills.”
Mr. Greiner didn’t seem optimistic a performance audit would change much, but didn’t shut down the idea.
“We’ll look into it,” he said. “If it’s something that has some benefit, we’ll see if our board would support it.”
Mr. Densic also wants to diversify water sources and get away from having a single intake in Lake Erie. He supports microstation networks, which are a series of smaller stations.
“You can put two or three side by side, and they’re very low cost,” Mr. Densic said. “Rather than have a distribution system that starts at one point and pumps everywhere from there, you’re placing the sources with pump stations along the way. You can decrease pipe size and pumping demands.”
As for Rossford’s contract with NWS, residents shouldn’t expect a change in providers anytime soon.
“There is no other option; it doesn’t exist,” Mayor MacKinnon said. “And that’s the whole point of investigating and looking into regional water and sewer.”
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