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Mayor reviews CSO history with Council

8/1/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic presents information to Council on the city’s massive $870 million combined sewer overflow program July 29.
Photo: Stephanie Kist
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Mayor Don Plusquellic updated Akron City Council members on the city’s massive $870 million combined sewer overflow (CSO) program during a special session July 29.

He began by reviewing the history of the CSO situation in the city, in response, he said, to misconceptions about the situation and persistent criticism that the city ignored the problem for many years. That charge, he said, is a “blatant lie.”

Distributing a flurry of documents to Council members and others in attendance, and displaying carts piled high with binders stuffed full of paperwork, Plusquellic outlined the city’s work to address CSO. According to a timeline, the city began an assessment of water-quality impacts from CSOs in 1991, a study that was completed in 1993, and published a plan to address CSOs in 1998.

CSO improvements were first required by law in 2000. In 2002, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the city’s then-$376 million plan to address CSO. That approval, according to city officials, was rescinded by the U.S. EPA that same year, setting in motion years of dispute over affordability and the length of time to complete the projects, a dispute that eventually found its way into federal court when the U.S. EPA sued the city in 2009. An agreement between the city and the EPA was rejected by federal Judge John Adams in 2011, leading to the current proposed $870 million plan, which awaits the judge’s decision.

Meanwhile, the city has designed and begun construction on some of the projects intended to alleviate CSO. The long-term plan includes projects meant to eliminate the discharge of sewage into the Cuyahoga River, including the construction of 10 wet weather storage basins, two large underground storage tunnels and improvements to the Water Pollution Control Station and pump stations, as well as sewer separation projects, two of which have been completed.

Since 1987, Plusquellic noted, the city has dedicated more than $300.5 million in capital improvements to the sewer system.

To pay for the upcoming projects, which are expected to stretch into 2027, city officials have said that sewer rates could triple, averaging about $125 to $150 for ratepayers.

Plusquellic has had harsh words for Adams, the EPA and other federal officials pertaining to the CSO program, which is being characterized as an unfunded mandate.

“It’s a shame what they’re doing to us in Washington,” he said, insinuating Akron’s requirement to eliminate CSO in a 15-year time frame is more stringent than other U.S. cities for politically motivated reasons.

Councilwoman Linda Omobien (D-at large) expressed frustration the CSO issue doesn’t translate well to residents, and she asked the mayor to break it down into a more easily understood format.

Plusquellic bristled at the line of questioning.

“It’s a very complicated, complex issue,” he said. “I’m not going to simplify it for you, because I can’t. … There’s no way to simplify an $870 million project that deals with fecal coliform and a thousand other things that go into the water. There isn’t a simple, easy way to explain this.”

Councilman Bruce Kilby (D-Ward 2), persisted in his assertion, voiced in the past and at last week’s Council meeting, that taxpayers should not be burdened with the cost of the projects and the city administration should be able to find a different way to pay for them.

Plusquellic said city officials have looked at and ruled out other potential funding sources, such as taxes and assessments.

“I don’t want to see this town become a ghost town, and I don’t think you do, either,” Kilby said.

Plusquellic said it’s possible the CSO program can be reviewed in the future under an EPA provision that sewer rates can only be afforded at 2 percent of a city’s median household income.

The CSO projects are expected to create hundreds of jobs, and Council and city officials have focused as of late their efforts to put Akron citizens to work in those positions, approving several pieces of legislation to that end last week. At the regular Council meeting July 29, which is the last meeting before Council’s annual summer break, Council President Garry Moneypenny (D-Ward 10) said he would be willing to call a special Council meeting during the break if it becomes necessary to vote on additional legislation pertaining to CSO jobs.

In legislative action at the Council meeting, numerous people were honored with resolutions, including Kameron Williams, Kaila Watkins and Phil Watkins for their attempts to save Nicholas Shaffer, 12, a boy with autism who apparently jumped into the flooded Mud Brook near the Timber Top apartments in Merriman Valley July 11 after a flooding storm. His body was found three days later.

Council, along with most of the members of the audience, gave the three individuals a hearty standing ovation.

Moneypenny noted the significance of the resolution, which was sponsored by the mayor and Council as a whole.

“Thirteen elected officials and the mayor just recognized you as heroes,” he said, encouraging the young adults to remember that moment when they are faced with choices and come to crossroads in their lives. “Nobody can ever take this title away from you except yourselves.”

[For more on Nicholas and the July 10 flooding rainstorm in Akron, see the July 18, 2013, edition of the West Side Leader or visit the archives at www.akron.com.]

Council also unanimously approved resolutions honoring and expressing appreciation for retiring city officials Deputy Mayor for Intergovernmental Relations Laraine Duncan, Deputy Mayor for Administration Rick Merolla and Deputy Public Service Director Ronnie Williams.

“I really thank all three of them for their service to the citizens,” Plusquellic said. “They work really hard for the citizens of Akron.”

Merolla was in attendance at the meeting and accepted accolades from Council members.

“It’s a bittersweet night for me,” he said. “To be called deputy mayor for Mayor Plusquellic is an honor I didn’t think I’d ever be able to achieve professionally. … I thank God for the opportunities I’ve been given.”

Council also approved, with an 11-2 vote, an ordinance authorizing the mayoral appointment of Councilman Jeff Fusco (D-at large) to the Board of Directors for the city’s four Joint Economic Development Districts.

Omobien angrily objected that, as chairwoman of the Economic Development and Job Creation Committee, she should have been considered and asked to serve on that board, and she was not asked. She said that her committee hasn’t met since Jan. 23, 2012, because no legislation has been sent to the committee for its consideration.

“When you ask questions down here, you get shut out,” she said. “The culture of this body has to change. It has to change.”

Kilby also voted against the ordinance.

In other business, Council approved:

  • a conditional-use permit to allow the construction of apartments at Rockynol and the construction of a shared parking lot with Westminster Presbyterian Church. Some neighbors, concerned about heritage trees on adjacent property, met with city and church officials, who reduced the number of parking spaces that would be constructed in order not to threaten a large hackberry tree. Neighbors requested the removal of one more parking space, but Council opted to move forward and approve the conditional use as proposed. The ordinance was amended Monday night to include that the conditions would be reviewed annually by the Planning Commission for at least three years;
  • an ordinance amending phosphate detergent regulations to allow one half of 1 percent of phosphates in detergents, a move that brings the city’s standards in line with state and national standards; and
  • a resolution urging the Akron Civil Service Commission to review, study and modify its policies and rules concerning fair hiring practices to provide an opportunity for qualified individuals with a criminal record to seek employment with the city. The resolution, which comes a week after several individuals appeared before Council to ask the city to consider a fair hiring policy that doesn’t ask applicants if they have been convicted of a felony in the past, states the cities of Canton, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus already have taken steps to remove conviction history questions from job applications.

Council will next meet Sept. 9, after its summer break, at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers on the third floor of the Akron Municipal Building, 166 S. High St. in Downtown Akron. Committee meetings are set to begin at 2 p.m. that afternoon, also in Council Chambers.

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