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Norton voters to decide on water, sewer fees

7/11/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

NORTON — Norton residents will decide again Aug. 6 whether the city charter needs an update. On the Special Election ballot, Issue No. 1 asks for regulations on sewer and rate assessments, connection fees and rate limits.

According to the Summit County Board of Elections, the ballot question will be: Shall the charter amendment proposed by petition be approved?

The question will appear below four paragraphs outlining the potential changes to Norton’s charter. The ballot language will explain the proposed amendment seeks to eliminate fees for construction of sewer or water lines for city residents and people who own property in Norton, as well as to have assessments for sewer or water lines paid for by the city. The amendment proposes that tie-in fees for sewer or water lines be eliminated as well.

In addition, the charter amendment seeks to cap residential water and sewer bills at $35 a month, unless increased by a majority vote of City Council by not more than 2 percent per year.

Both the issue’s advocates and its opponents have been very vocal on the issue.

Proponents of the issue include the Citizens4Norton (C4N) group, who gathered the signatures of more than 10 percent of those who voted in the last general municipal election in order to see the issue appear on the ballot.

Tom Kornas, a member of the petition committee and a resident of the Nash Heights neighborhood, said the proposed amendment is a response to the city administration’s push to have sewers installed in the city.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not mandated that sewers be installed, he said.

“That’s an out-and-out lie,” he said.

Sewers are expensive for city residents, he said, and could amount to some property owners paying $20,000 for tie-in fees on top of $12,500 for assessments. Property owners would also face expenses related to the removal of septic tanks, he added.

Several months ago, C4N sent the administration a list of different avenues of approach to comply with the EPA that wouldn’t cost city residents an arm and a leg, according to Kornas.

“They’re going about it the most expensive way possible,” when there are other options Norton residents could afford, he added.

Installing sewers throughout the city is part of a master plan approved by Council in 1997, according to Administrative Officer Rick Ryland.

At a special Council meeting on the issue this past summer, Ryland said the EPA told the city in 2009 about 70 percent of homes in Norton had failing home sewage treatment systems, and a plan to rectify the issue must be implemented or the city could face fines.

C4N began the push to stop sewers from being installed, according to city officials, at which time Council voted to discontinue all sewer projects in the city, according to Ryland.

In December, the city received another letter from the EPA asking for a response to include “a schedule and plan to resolve the illicit and unsanitary condition of discharging sewage to the storm sewer system in the city.”

Following the EPA letter, Council voted 5-2 to authorize Mayor Mike Zita and city administrators to move forward on negotiating a schedule with the Ohio EPA to have the city equipped with sewers.

Later that month, the Board of Health of Summit County Public Health led a public hearing regarding pollution levels in the Nash Heights neighborhood and on Brookside Court while considering declaring the area a public health nuisance.

According to Summit County Public Health (SCPH), 21 percent of sewage treatment systems in that area were found to be malfunctioning and high levels of fecal coliform colonies were discovered in six of nine storm water outfalls tested.

In April, SCPH did declare Nash Heights a public health nuisance with sewer extension being “the most logical long term solution.”

If other public health nuisances are found in the course of evaluating other areas of Norton, and it becomes evident that sewers are necessary, sewers will be pursued, according to SCPH.

According to Zita, if the city is not able to move forward with installing sewers, Summit County would take over the job. Additionally, the county would assess at 100 percent of the cost, he said.

The last sanitary sewer project, which took place on Greenwich Road in 2010-11, cost individual property owners $12,800 in assessments, not including interest, with the city of Norton waiving tap-in fees, according to Ryland. The city of Barberton reduced tap-in fees by 50 percent, he said.

City Council approved a resolution June 24 “strongly opposing” the passage of Issue No. 1, with all members of Council and the mayor weighing in. Councilman Bill Mowery (Ward 3) alone voted against the resolution.

Council’s resolution states the amendment would limit the city’s authority to collect money for services and could lead to the city’s inability to meet its financial obligations, calling the potential consequences “severe and debilitating.”

Among the objections voiced by Council members, the amendment would take away the city’s ability to be fiscally responsible. Capping water bills at $35 a month is unrealistic, according to Council members, and Norton has no authority to define what the city of Barberton or Summit County charges for water and sewer services.

Water lines in the city are billed through the city of Barberton, according to Norton officials. On average, residents’ water bills cost around $40 to $50 a month, according to city officials.

The way the proposal is written, anyone could come into the city, buy property and use as much water as they want, only paying the set amount, according to members of Council.

The proposed amendment doesn’t indicate who would pay the remainder of the bills, which would have to come out of the city’s General Fund, reducing the city’s ability to provide services to its residents, according to Zita.

City workers in the Service Department, clerical jobs and police all get paid out of the General Fund, according to Zita.

The city’s police department would be most affected since it’s the biggest portion of the General Fund budget, according to Ryland.

“I believe the city has to, at the very least, challenge the portion of the initiative petition that calls for the city to pay for past assessments,” according to Ryland.

If Issue No. 1 passes, the city would have to pick up $3.3 million in outstanding assessments and come up with $250,000 on an annual basis, he said.

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