Updated: City: Water, sewer rate increases ‘absolutely warranted’Written by Kristen Criswell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Every day, at least one water main owned by the city of Toledo’s Department of Public Utilities (DPU) breaks.
The city’s water and sewer department, which provides services not only to Toledoans but to cities and counties throughout Northwest Ohio and part of Southeast Michigan, faces the challenge of fixing these breaks, maintaining the water and sewer lines it has and meeting requirements of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreement.
To provide sufficient funds to meet these challenges, Mayor Mike Bell’s administration has proposed water, sewer and storm water rate increases across the next four years.
The administration has proposed a 9.9 percent rate increase every year for storm water and water costs and a 13.4 percent increase every year for sewer costs between 2011 and 2014.
According to Tom Crothers, director of the DPU, the rate increases are “absolutely warranted” for the simple fact that the department has to maintain the system properly.
“We understand a rate increase is tough in this environment; we live here, too. We understand how difficult things are here in Northwest Ohio and the region … It’s tough for our businesses, it’s tough for our residents, it’s tough for everyone,” Crothers said. “Yet, if the system fails, no amount of money that you or I pay will bring water to your home if there’s a problem in the system.”
Crothers said the system isn’t in immediate danger, but if things aren’t turned around there could be “catastrophic problems” in the future.
Every year, the average home uses 12,000 cubic feet, or roughly 90,000 gallons, of water.
In 2010, the average customer will pay $657.40 for combined water, sewer and storm water services. In 2014, after the four-year rate increases, the average customer will spend $1,051.52 a year or roughly $33 more a month than they do currently.
Seniors would pay a discounted rate based on the idea that they consume less water, Crothers said.
Seniors average 4,000 cubic feet, or roughly 30,000 gallons of water a year.
In 2010, seniors average a cost of $295.04 annually, while in 2014 they’ll pay $470.76 a year.
The rate increases would allow the DPU to make $329 million in improvements to the water and sewer systems in those four years, as well as help replenish cash on hand to make emergency repairs, Crothers said. In addition, the rate increases would help cover improvements mandated by the $521 million consent decree with the EPA.
Problems in the system
Due to inadequate funds coming in during the past few years, the department is forced to play catch-up, Crothers said. The Toledo Waterway Initiative consent decree with the federal EPA mandated improvements in the sanitary disposal of sewage and storm water into the rivers. As a result of the agreement, sewage costs increased to cover improvements, but the water rates weren’t increased to keep the bill low, Crothers added.
“We all keep score by our purse or back pocket. You don’t pay a separate check for storm water, sanitary sewer and water, you write one. What happened is the total amount for the water has been kept lower than it should have been to support the sewer side,” he said.
In addition to water rates not increasing as they should have, estimates in water usages have also created a lower intake than projected. Current rates don’t meet the need to maintain the water and sewage systems, Crothers said.
“We don’t want to have large rates. We’ve tried to avoid it, hoping that the economy would turn, that water sales would jump up, that everything would turn rosy,” said Don Moline, commissioner of field services at DPU.
“It just hasn’t, and in the meantime the system has declined and is in critical need of maintenance now. It’s not time the time to put it off another five years until something gets better.”
The majority of the DPU’s water and sewer mains, roughly 70 percent, date back to the 1950s, Moline said. Some of the mains date back even further to the late 1800s.
Moline said many of these pipes are falling apart and need to be replaced. In addition, the drinking water plant is in terrible need of a $3.6 million roof replacement, he said.
Moline’s main concern is making sure the water plant has enough functioning water pumps to meet the need of the region.
“I can hold the roof up temporarily, but if the pump fails, I’m done,” Moline said.
The plant must have at least three pumps operational at all times, with four operational in the summer, he said. Like a house, the water and sewer lines and plants need to be maintained.
“We need to get the house back in order. If we don’t, it’s going to go,” Moline said.
One of the worst breaks in the system’s history was in 1996 on an Upton Avenue water main, Moline said.
A 30-inch water main from the 1950s blew, knocking six houses off their foundations and flooding the area around DeVilbiss.
“The Coast Guard came out in boats to rescue people from their houses, the water came out so fast,” Moline said.
The water main break at Upton cost $3 million to fix. If a similar break, a catastrophic failure of a main, were to happen today the water and sewer replacement fund wouldn’t have the cash to fix it, Moline said.
“We have big stuff and that means it’s expensive. When it goes, it goes and we have to get someone on the site immediately,” Crothers said.
Toledo City Council has already hosted one committee of the whole meeting to discuss the possible rate increases and has scheduled another for Dec. 6.
“It’s very important that we continue to get the word out to the public about potential rate increases. We need public testimony and to get public feedback,” said Councilwoman Lindsay Webb.
“How we move forward will directly impact the bottom line of the citizens and the businesses as well as the integrity of the storm sewer and water systems,” she said.
Webb said she knows improvements are necessary in the system, but needs to balance the DPU’s needs with what’s best for the residents financially.
Other members of council also expressed concern about the public’s ability to pay the increased rates.
During its first reading of the legislation at the Nov. 23 Council meeting, George Sarantou asked the administration to analyze the possibility of raising the rates to the same levels during eight years instead of four.
Council President Wilma Brown would like to see at the Dec. 6 meeting if there could be a reduction in the rate percentage, she said.
“I’ve been hearing from people that they understand we need the money, but they can’t afford to pay the 9.9 percent increase all at once,” Brown said.
Brown is especially concerned with the senior citizens’ ability to pay, she said.
Councilman D. Michael Collins wants an audit of the sewer, storm water and water funds, breaking down how each dollar is spent before voting, he said. Collins would also like a complete list of delinquent accounts.
“I won’t support any new monies for the city of Toledo, unless they’re putting efforts into collecting delinquent payments,” Collins said. “I cannot justify making the people that pay their bills pay more if we’re not going after the people that don’t pay.”
While Council is still discussing the proposed rate increases, it has recognized some of the department’s needs by passing the appropriation of funds to purchase 26 vehicles and equipment for the sewer and drainage services during its Nov. 23 meeting.
Individuals interested in further discussion of the proposed rate increases can attend the committee of the whole meeting at 6 p.m. in Council chambers. Council chambers are located on the first floor of One Government Center.
Editor note: On Dec. 3 a memorandum was sent to members of City Council from Tom Crothers stating that the City was revising their proposed rate increases for water and sanitary sewer. The new proposed rate increase for water and sanitary sewer were reduced .9 percent. The increase for water would now be 9 percent and the increase for sanitary sewer would now be 12.5 percent. The rate increase sought for storm water rates would remain at 9.9 percent per year over the four year block.
Crothers said the typical residential customer could expect to save $31.10 in year 2014 when compared to the original proposal and the typical Senior/Homestead residential customer could expect to save $11.87 in 2014 versus the original proposal.