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Council passes Akron sewer rate increase

2/6/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

DOWNTOWN AKRON — In his third consecutive appearance before Akron City Council’s Public Utilities Committee Feb. 3, Mayor Don Plusquellic asked for approval of an ordinance raising sewer rates and said voting the ordinance down would not temper the city’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) problems.

“There isn’t this wonderful utopian alternative, which is to do nothing,” he said.

The city has for several years been under mandate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to alleviate CSO and eliminate the discharge of sewage into the Cuyahoga River — and at odds with the EPA over how to do so.

In December, Plusquellic said he intended to withdraw from the Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) between the city and the EPA and under consideration by a federal judge and pursue instead an alternative called an Integrated Plan, which takes into consideration residents’ ability to afford CSO projects, as well as modern and emerging technologies in the future. The costs of the projects under the LTCP had ballooned to $1.4 billion, according to Plusquellic, who said the Integrated Plan had the potential to be a much more affordable option.

“It could save taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Public Utilities Chairman Bob Hoch (D-Ward 6).

However, projects already completed or under way under the LTCP must be paid for, and city officials have projected large sewer rate increases to do so. Plusquellic has said the city potentially would face millions of dollars in fines for violating the federal Clean Water Act without projects to fix CSO. Therefore, Plusquellic stressed Feb. 3 that Council and the city administration didn’t have the luxury to “put our heads in the sand” and hope the issue goes away.

But not all Council members saw it the same way.

Committee members Michael Williams (D-at large) and Donnie Kammer (D-Ward 7) voted against sending the legislation to the full Council for a favorable vote, and at the regular Council meeting that night, the ordinance only squeaked by with a vote of 8-5.

With Council’s narrow approval, a 40 percent increase in sewer rates goes into effect this month, and Akron ratepayers will see the increase on their March bills. Next year, rates will increase an additional 27 percent. Suburban and master meter rates also are increasing.

The ordinance also will signify to the federal government the city intends to work with the EPA to develop an Integrated Plan. At the regular Council meeting, support for the Integrated Plan route was clear, but Council was divided on approving the sewer rate increase. Almost every Council member spoke on the issue, with impassioned speeches on either side.

Williams and Councilwoman Linda Omobien (D-at large) shared similar views, saying they are in favor of the Integrated Plan but felt they could not support a rate increase because they did not have sufficient information to explain to their constituents what, exactly, it would pay for.

“I will not vote for a sewer rate increase until a completed plan is presented,” Williams said. “I’m not going to spend anybody else’s money until I can look them in the face and explain to them why they have to pay.”

“The people I talked to cannot afford this [increase],” Omobien said.

Also voting against the ordinance were Kammer and Council members Tara Mosely-Samples (D-Ward 5) and Margo Sommerville (D-Ward 3).

Sommerville said the increase would create a hardship for the residents of her ward, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, and she felt bound to oppose the rate hike for her constituents’ sake.

It was repeated many times throughout the meeting that none of the Council members wanted to raise the sewer rates, but, as Councilwoman Marilyn Keith (D-Ward 8) stated, it was the right thing, if not the easy thing, to do, even “if this means that I don’t get re-elected this time.”

“Our backs are to the wall,” said Councilman Jeff Fusco (D-at large). “Nobody, nobody, nobody wants to increase this at this time or at any time.”

“Everybody loves the environment; everybody loves apple pie. But you’ve got to pay for those apples,” said Councilman Rich Swirsky (D-Ward 1).

He noted that an Integrated Plan requires a financial strategy for paying for the construction projects.

“The EPA wants to know if we have the money. … I’m for this so that we can show the EPA that we’re ready to move forward in a real way,” he said.

Councilman Russel Neal Jr. (D-Ward 4) said the Integrated Plan, as well as the ordinance’s directive to hire local and minority residents for the jobs created by the construction projects, presented an opportunity to come together as a community.

“This is going to be our legacy for generations to come,” he said.

Council President Garry Moneypenny (D-Ward 10) chastised those Council members who said they would vote against the ordinance because they didn’t have the full information when Council had four weeks to mull the ordinance and plenty of opportunity to ask their questions.

He noted several city officials had been present at that afternoon’s Public Utilities Committee meeting, which was attended by every member of Council, to answer questions.

“The people who chose to vote for this are actually the courageous people,” he said. “I applaud anybody that votes for this.”

In other business, Council conducted the formality of a public hearing on the 2014 capital budget. As has been typical in recent years, no one attended to speak at the public hearing.

Planning Committee Chairman Fusco said he planned to ask for a vote at next week’s meeting.

More than half of the proposed $226.3 million budget — $121 million — is marked for water and sewer expenses, $68 million of which is planned to go toward CSO projects. The rest is divided among economic development ($27.8 million), transportation ($26.4 million), housing and community services ($4.6 million), public facilities ($3.2 million), parks and recreation ($2.4 million) and miscellaneous ($41 million), which includes salaries, benefits and overhead for the Capital Planning Administration and $38 million for debt service for capital projects.

The next Akron City Council meeting will take place Feb. 10 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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