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Toledo, Lucas Co., suburbs close to regional water agreement

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    Plant administrator Andrew McClure looks over water-treatment filters at Collins Park Water Treatment Plant in Toledo.

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    The high-service pump station distributes water throughout the city at the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant in Toledo.

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The city of Toledo may sell its drinking water system, including the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant, to a regional water authority under terms proposed in the latest draft agreement between the city and the communities that buy water from Toledo.

The draft, obtained by The Blade, is the latest version of a memorandum of understanding between Toledo and neighboring municipalities that have been working for more than a year toward creating a regional water system. The most recent proposal is an about-face from the city’s previous stance under Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson, who was adamant about keeping the drinking-water system’s assets under city ownership.

City Law Director Dale Emch said Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz offered the option for the regional water system — dubbed the Toledo Area Water Authority — to buy the city’s assets out front rather than assuming ownership after a 30-year lease. Nothing is set in stone, and the lease-to-own option still is on the table.

“He is such an advocate of establishing a regional water system that he is putting this option on the table as something to be considered,” Mr. Emch said. “We’re still trying to evaluate what makes the most sense both for city residents and for what would be the new water district, and the partners haven’t had a lot of time to consider this, either.”

Leaders 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 the parties form the Toledo Area Water Authority.

Should all nine jurisdictions agree to the latest memorandum of understanding, the new water authority would equalize water rates across all communities within eight years, establish an affordability program for low-income customers, and craft a plan to replace all lead service lines. It also would establish a redundant water source, whether that involves building a new water intake or tapping into an existing one.

Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken said the municipalities have been close to reaching a similar deal several times in the past 20 years, but he feels more confident this time around.

“This feels a lot different. There’s more energy and trust among the suburbs with the city than there had been in the past,” he said. “That is because the city of Toledo’s position from its top administration, with Mayor Kapszukiewicz especially, sees this as the future.”

Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough, who has spearheaded the push toward a Toledo Area Water Authority, said he expects the leaders of each municipality will sign the agreement Jan. 31. After that, each municipality’s legislative body, such as Toledo City Council, will need to vote in favor of creating the water authority before it can petition Lucas County Common Pleas Court to form it officially.

The draft agreement sets a tentative date of March 15 to submit such a petition to the court.

Mr. Stough said he is pleased to see all sides cooperating and said he believes the water authority will function smoothly, whether it buys the system’s assets right away or assumes ownership after a 30-year lease. Either way, the new authority would take on all debt for plant improvements at the onset.

“I am perfectly satisfied with either solution, as long as the water system owns the water plant at some point,” he said. “However, to buy it outright at the beginning makes the most sense. The water authority will assume the costs of the $500 million in improvements going on, and putting all that money into it, we might as well own it at the same time.”

Ms. Hicks-Hudson in March, 2017, said Toledo could not sell or transfer ownership of the plant without a vote by its citizens, but Mr. Emch said Monday the new administration believes otherwise.

“We believe the city charter would allow for the sale of our water plant and assets,” Mr. Emch said. “We see no prohibition on a sale, or a requirement to take that issue to the voters.”

The draft agreement outlines a plan for Toledo’s water division staff to become employees of the Toledo Area Water Authority and calls for existing collective-bargaining agreements to be honored during the transition.

The draft also calls for a board of seven appointed trustees to govern the new authority. Each would be paid an annual salary of $25,000 plus an additional $15,000 during each of the authority’s first two years “in recognition of the exceptional level of effort anticipated to carry out board member duties in this period.”

“I like that it’s almost done,” Mr. Gerken said. “I like the fact that it really says something about the attitude in northwest Ohio, finally, that the suburban communities, the county, and the city of Toledo can get something done together.”

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

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