A vital part of downtown Akron, the city’s steam system has had a long history of problems, among them a 1984 explosion that killed three workers burning a load of sawdust mixed with oil and paint. The plant has long ceased burning waste. In recent years, the pressing question has been how to put the system on sound financial footing, providing reliable service.
This week, Mayor Don Plusquellic announced a plan to accomplish just that, a good and necessary deal that would transfer ownership to Akron Children’s Hospital, one of the system’s biggest customers. Children’s would then find an owner or operator, playing a key role in developing a long-term solution.
Worth noting is that no other big city has a steam system of its own. For Akron, a transfer would remove the ongoing burden of updating an aging infrastructure of boilers and pipes. Last year, the city spent $6 million on repairs. More must be done. The system, Plusquellic says, is now a “negative asset.”
For their part, Children’s and Akron General Medical Center, which also supports the transfer, must be assured of steady service. Unlike other customers, they do not have the option of shutting down, even briefly. Moving forward, a new owner or operator will have the flexibility to negotiate rates to support the necessary level of investment.
For the city of Akron and Children’s, the proposal is as close to a win-win situation as possible, Akron avoiding further subsidies and Children’s avoiding the expense (from $6 million to $9 million) of building its own steam plant. Children’s decision ensures the potential of a viable system serving downtown. Without Children’s as a major customer, the system might not have enough customers to function at all.
A misguided charter amendment, pushed onto the ballot in 2008 by a small group of activists in reaction to Plusquellic’s plan to lease the city’s sewer system for college scholarships, requires voter approval of the transfer. The overly broad language of the amendment requires voter approval for any sale, transfer or lease of any part of any city utility. In 2010, the city proposed leasing the steam system to a private operator, only to see the issue defeated at the polls.
Nevertheless, the City Council must now push back, placing the latest plan before voters. In all, more than 50 customers get steam heat (some also get chilled water for cooling) from what was once an Ohio Edison operation. The route back to private ownership, although complicated, is one that should be pursued as the best solution for the city as a whole.