By a vote of 8 to 5, the Akron City Council took a crucial step Monday to move the city in the right direction on the combined-sewer problem. Practically everything about fixing the city’s outdated storm water and sanitation system has been complicated and contentious. Each passing year has added to the expense. The estimated cost to repair the 34 remaining combined sewers, which dump untreated sewage into the Cuyahoga River and local waterways during heavy rains, is now up to $1.4 billion.
Akron has struggled to comply with the federal mandate to prevent the overflows and resulting water pollution. A key difficulty has been to find agreement among the courts, federal, state and city officials on an effective plan and time schedule. For City Hall, coming up with the means to pay for the massive, years-long project without straining department budgets or overburdening residents has been no less challenging. The days are gone when cities could expect significant help from the federal or state governments.
For that reason, the City Council’s approval of higher sewer rates is commendable. For the typical residential consumer, the monthly bill is set to rise from about $34 to $57 during this year and the next. The new rates are steep and, without question, could break the budgets of many seniors and low-income residents. The city should ensure a robust discount program is set up as required for those who face hardships.
Still, these increases are lower than the rates that would flow from the projected cost of the current plan, approved only last month by federal Judge John Adams, whose court has oversight of the plan. As it is, the council vote will help provide the funding to pay off sewer debts and also open the way for the mayor to negotiate an “integrated plan” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This approach offers more flexibility, among other things, to weigh the affordability for the city and residents of proposed sewer improvements. Years of litigation have prolonged the environmental damage. The conditions are right for Akron to pick up the pace in upgrading an archaic sewer system.