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A somewhat divided Toledo City Council last night finally approved the utility-rate increases after weeks of negotiating with the Bell administration and several stalemate meetings.
Council voted 8-4 last night to increase water rates 9 percent annually for four years. Voting against the increase were Councilmen Steven Steel, Mike Craig, Rob Ludeman, and George Sarantou.
Council then voted 9-3 to raise the sanitary sewer rate by 3 percent each year and add a fixed surcharge to the users' bills, each year through 2014. Those voting against that hike were Councilmen Phil Copeland, Tom Waniewski, and Wilma Brown.
Those surcharges will appear on bills as "TWI fixed," which stands for Toledo Waterways Initiative. It will be a $15.82 quarterly charge for regular users throughout all four years and $11.87 quarterly for users with a homestead exemption.
Water and sewer bills in a wide range of suburban communities also would rise under the rate structure, but customers outside the city pay even higher rates because their communities add surcharges to their bills.
The 9 percent water rate increase was less than the administration's original request for 9.9 percent, but it was lowered in one of the compromises between it and city councilmen who wanted to lessen the impact on users' wallets.
An idea to raise the water rate by only 5 percent was defeated last night. Only four councilmen voted in favor of entertaining that number: Mr. Craig, Mr. Ludeman, Mr. Sarantou, and Mr. Steel.
Approving a 5 percent raise for water rates instead of 9 percent hike would have required $80 million in cuts to the city's water system.
The sanitary-sewer rate was reduced at the suggestion of Mr. Craig and with the approval of a majority of council. The proposal from the Bell administration would have increased the cost for sanitary sewer 6.75 percent plus the additional fixed amount.
"We need the Toledo Waterways Initiative money -- there are no two ways around that, and I think 3 percent is all we can expect over that from users," Mr. Craig said. "If we need more down the road, when the economy gets better, then we can talk about it, but right now that is all people can afford."
Tom Crothers, Toledo's director of public utilities, said his staff today would start eliminating planned sanitary sewer repairs because of the reduced rate.
"In terms of the water system, we will be able to achieve everything we have put forward in our capital improvement plan in the next four years," Mr. Crothers said. "We will have to reprioritize the items that are absolutely critical given the reduced resources for us over the next four years to secure the waters system for our many customers."
Mr. Crothers said the city needs to make major water and sewer improvements. The work stems from court litigation initiated years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the federal government cracked down on excessive algae-causing sewage spills by Toledo and other Great Lakes cities. The EPA granted Toledo a four-year extension, to 2020 from 2016. Now, the city is seeking a second extension of an unspecified length.
Several councilmen on the approving side of the rate increases said they were happy with the compromises and stressed people would be saved money versus what Mayor Mike Bell had originally proposed.
Ms. Webb, who voted yes last night, explained that she was never opposed to the 9 percent raise despite her actions two weeks ago that prevented the approval of that increase at that time.
On Jan. 25, Ms. Webb left council chambers unannounced, resulting in an outcome that was six "no" votes to five "yes" votes. She explained later that had she voted "yes," it would have created a 6-6 tie that could have been broken by Mayor Bell, and Ms. Webb said she fundamentally objected to the mayor being able to make "an important decision like this."
Last night, Ms. Webb clarified her yes vote.
"I was never against the 9 percent on water," Ms. Webb said. "Water, sanitary sewer, and storm-water sewer were all negotiated as a package. When I walked out, I walked to get the administration back to the table. I was really walking out on the total package."
She added that the proposal put forth by Mr. Craig will save Toledoans money and is a "true compromise."
A third proposal by the Bell administration to increase the city storm-water rate by 7.5 percent was referred back to the mayor's office for another round of negotiations.
On a related matter last night, council unanimously approved $210,000 in emergency funds to repair the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant's roof. Mr. Bell last night said chunks of concrete from the roof have been collapsing. The city's plan is stabilizing the interior with lumber and to use netting to catch falling debris.
Contact Ignazio Messina at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6171.