Approximately 40 Akron residents showed up at a special Akron City Council public hearing Thursday night to hear details and speak their minds on a plan to raise sewer rates in order to pay for a federally mandated $500 million upgrade to the city’s combined sewer system.
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and representatives from the city’s Public Utilities, Engineering and Public Service divisions offered a history of the city’s 71-year-old Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, what the city has done on its own over the last 16 years to update it, and how despite its efforts, the city ended up with a judgment against it by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Council in November authorized the city to enter into a consent decree under which 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. The consent decree orders Akron to make several upgrades to its CSO system over the next 19 years, including:
“For those who say in the past we’ve done something wrong or haven’t operated efficiently, that is not the case,” said Council President Marco Sommerville, who requested the hearing held in the Akron Health Department auditorium. “Basically we are forced by the federal and Ohio EPA to make these improvements. Instead of having a combined sewer system we must have a different system for sewage and one for rain water.
“We arranged this hearing because we want to hear your input and to get the right information into the community.”
The CSO system, built in 1938, was considered at the time an innovative and cost-effective method of collecting and treating both sanitary and storm water discharge. A slide presentation moderated by representatives from all three city divisions offered a chronology and graphic depictions of Akron’s CSO system and how it operates.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the EPA published guidance on improving the CSO systems that many of the nation’s older industrial cities have used since the early 20th century, said Pat Gsellman, Environmental Division Manager of Akron’s Engineering Bureau. Akron, however, began investigating improving its CSO system two years earlier, he said.
“We had guidance on CSO’s in 1995, but Akron started its CSO work in 1993, ahead of the guidance,” Gsellman said. “We began an audit of our system, finding out what we have out there as far as capacity, inspecting the system and updating our maps.”
Under a 2002 agreement with the Ohio EPA on a $370 million project to repair the CSO system, the city began building separate storm and sanitary sewer projects – including Rack 40, the $17.8 million, 10 million gallon storage basin completed in 2006 along Cuyahoga Street. The federal government later rejected the agreement, which resulted in the now $500 million repair bill.
Service Director Rick Merolla said the rate increases for the cheaper project may have had less of an impact on Akron residents and businesses. Now, he said, the city must raise rates at a time when unemployment in the city is up, and as the city tries to comply with the mandate with fewer employees after layoffs enacted to trim spending.
“Had we been permitted to do the project we wanted to do we could have had more gradual rate increases,” Merolla said. “Our proposal now requires a 35 percent rate increase at the first of January, but we will investigate alternative funding options and present them to Council.”
The administration will be looking at other cities under similar EPA mandates to upgrade their CSO systems, including Atlanta, Boston and Cincinnati. Atlanta’s costs so far are most exorbitant, at $4 billion. Merolla said Atlanta successfully passed a sales tax increase to fund its project, but Akron does not have authority to do the same.
Sommerville asked for time on the proposal to raise sewer rates so that the city could devise an assistance program for low-income residents, similar to other utility bill programs established for electric and gas customers.
Residents’ questions and comments to city officials after the near hour-long presentation were mixed with anger over higher water bills, concern for more abandoned homes as they are condemned due to disconnected water service, and requests that Akron workers be hired to do the repair work when it commences.
Three of the residents to speak came from different sides of town, but they had one thing in common: they were all unemployed. They expressed concern over facing higher water bills, but also asked that Akron residents at least have a fair shot at the jobs to come from the repair project.
The city has announced plans to rehire some of the 40 sewer division workers who had been laid off, but otherwise has little power to favor an Akron-based contractor over any other who may submit a lower estimate in the low-bid process.
“By law, these contracts must be awarded to the lowest and best bidder," Plusquellic said. "We do provide incentives for Akron companies to benefit from bid projects, but keep in mind the low-bid contract process is designed to protect the taxpayer.”
Sommerville is hopeful that a discount plan and alternative funding for the project will be in place before Council votes on the sewer ordinance. Council shortened its winter recess to schedule one more meeting Monday, Dec. 21 to vote on the ordinance.
“This is a very difficult situation,” Sommerville said. “This is not something we want to do, but if we don’t do it we are going to be fined.”