Ward: Storm clouds gatherWritten by Lisa Renee Ward | | email@example.com
Stormwater is at the heart of the Toledo City Council debate on utility rate increases.
As has been covered in past columns, Toledo has a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because our combined sewer and storm system, when overwhelmed, releases excess sewage, called a combined sewer overflow (CSO), into the waterways.
Many other areas that have consent decrees have opted to have a set fee on utility bills directly related to projects needed to satisfy the EPA. It gives residents of an area a better chance of seeing the additional fee end when the projects have been completed. That can not be said for an across-the-board increase.
That is one of the reasons Councilwoman Lindsay Webb suggested not only a lower percentage increase in water, sanitary sewer and stormwater rates, but included a set fee directly related to the consent decree.
While her plan was changed and the percentage rates increased so the overall plan generated the same as the administration’s plan, it appears to be the only other plan that Mayor Mike Bell supports.
Councilman Rob Ludeman has presented a utility rate plan, a 5 percent increase in water and sewer and no increase in stormwater.
A problem with Ludeman’s plan is it would severely impact funding of projects that deal with stormwater, like cleaning ditches of debris to prevent/reduce flooding.
While things could change before the Jan. 25 Council meeting, none of the plans have enough support to predict passage. Should Ludeman’s plan pass as written and the Mayor vetos it, there is no increase in utility rates.
That news may make many happy; after all, who wants to pay higher utility rates?
The risk is if there is a catastrophic failure of an element of our water treatment or sewer system, the money has to come from somewhere, most likely the General Fund, which would mean cuts or increased fees.
Part of the problem is some on Council do not have faith in the Bell administration’s numbers. This is compounded by the lack of transparency when it came to requests that were made by more than one member of Council. Councilman D. Michael Collins repeated his request Jan. 18 at Council’s Public Utilities committee meeting for, “budget statements that reflect to Jan. 1, 2010, on all three accounts as to starting balances and ending balances on Dec. 31, 2010.”
Director of Public Utilities Tom Crothers in response said, “Indeed, I would have loved to have answered those more quickly as well, but because of the implementation of the SAP system, and the parallel, if you will, operation of the Ross system, I have not yet to date, been able to answer that with the certainty that I feel comfortable with the numbers. and until I am, you will not see that referral.”
If he is not comfortable with the numbers as to expenses and revenues, it could be asked, how can anyone know how much of a rate increase is really needed? Crothers promised Collins’ request would be met before the Jan. 25 meeting.
One thing everyone does appear to agree on is that the consent decree is financially burdensome. The EPA announced plans to make regulatory improvements to strengthen its stormwater program this past summer.
The EPA acknowledged in “Green Infrastructure Case Studies: Municipal Policies for Managing Stormwater with Green Infrastructure” in August 2010: “City and county governments have limited financial resources to allocate to the many competing demands under local control. Municipalities are responsible for implementing and enforcing expensive CleanWater Act requirements, while also trying to pay for a large number of other programs, both environmental and non-environmental.”
It said, “Green infrastructure approaches have a range of benefits for the social, environmental and economic conditions of a community.”
Toledo has not made any serious attempts to renegotiate the consent decree with the EPA. As has been pointed out in the past and was restated by Katie Swartz, associate director for American Rivers, during the committee meeting, discussions with the EPA to increase green infrastructure instead of gray should take place and is taking place in other cities.
The sooner we find out what is possible when it comes to the consent decree, the better, from an environmental and a financial standpoint.
Lisa Renee Ward operates the political blog GlassCityJungle.com.