Council seeks ways to soften blow of increased water bills to pay for mandatory repairs; Special hearing scheduled to discuss payment options

December 08, 2009

Akron City Council is exploring every option available to soften the blow of proposed sewer rate increases.

Council Monday night voted for time on an ordinance to raise sewer service rates and create a discount rate adjustment program for low-income residents. The ordinance proposes  initial incremental rate increases over four years – starting with a 35 percent increase to go into effect at the first of the year – in order to pay for the estimated $500 million in sewer system repairs the city agreed to in its lawsuit settlement with the EPA.

Council called for time for the city to look into alternative funding sources to offset rate increases, to devise an eligibility formula for a sewer bill assistance program for low-income customers and to hold a special public hearing to get residents’ input on the increases – the first since 2006.

The special meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17 at the City of Akron Morley Health Center auditorium, 277 S. Broadway.

 “I want to make sure the mayor looks through all other sources of funding available to implement this consent decree,” said Council President Marco Sommerville (W-3). “We need to look at all the things available to deal with a situation we shouldn’t have to deal with. Thirty-five percent the first year is a real big hit”

During a presentation to Council’s Public Utilities Committee Monday afternoon, Akron Service Director Rick Merolla said residential sewer rates would increase by 35 percent in 2010, 15 percent in 2011, 15 percent in 2012 and 9 percent in 2013. Industrial and commercial customers, as well as suburban users, will also see increases, he said.

“With the consent decree come necessary costs to implement the $500 million in repairs over the next 19 years,” Merolla said. “To fund the upcoming costs, it’s necessary to increase rates over the next four years.”

The increases will raise $40 million toward the estimated $60 million it will cost to complete the first phase of repairs, as well as pay for the estimated $925,000 per year in salaries and benefits for 18 new sewer workers the city will have to hire to start the repairs. Public Utilities Committee chair Kenneth L. Jones suspects some of the hires will be recalled from the 40 water and sewer workers let go in cost-cutting measures in 2000.

“The city has a common goal it needs to fulfill that first year, particularly as far as hiring people, but 35 percent year is still a lot,” Jones (W-5) said. “That’s why the legislation before us will encompass not only the rate increases, but a relief program we want to have in place.”

In addition to offering help for residents who may have trouble affording the higher bills, Jones emphasized making the increases as simple as possible for residents to understand. He wants to put in plain numbers what residents should expect to pay each month for their water and sewer service.

According to the estimates provided by the Service Director, the average residential water bill at $25 per month will be nearly double – approximately $48.65 – in 2013.

 “This is going to be major,” Jones said. “The pitch has to be to let them know dollar-wise how much more they’ll have to pay out so they can start calculating their bills and budgeting accordingly.”

Council in November authorized the city to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies over problems caused by its combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Under the agreement, the city will repair and upgrade its combined sewer and storm water collection systems, pay a $500,000 fine and pay $900,000 to remove the Ohio and Erie Canal diversion dam near Brecksville.