Akron Children’s Hospital has made the city of Akron a very attractive offer. The regional hospital, and largest customer of the city’s troubled steam utility, has offered to take it over, working with an operator and downtown customers to try to put the system on sound footing.
It’s as close to a win-win proposition as residents are likely to find. The city would get out from under the burden of subsidizing the system, which it has done to the tune of $28 million since 2007, and Children’s and other users would avoid the high cost of building their own individual steam plants.
For the transfer to go through, city voters must approve a charter amendment. We recommend voting “yes” on Issue 4 on Nov. 5.
Approval of the transfer would return to private ownership what was once an Ohio Edison operation. The city eventually took charge, recycling energy by burning trash. The operation was marred by a fatal explosion in 1984. This episode and other troubles led the city to stop burning trash.
Financial difficulties have persisted, casting doubts on the operation. This affects some 50 customers relying on the utility for steam for heating and chilled water for cooling. Among them are Children’s and Akron General Medical Center, which also supports the transfer. They need reliable service to continue their life-saving work.
Normally, such a transfer would be worked out without going to the ballot. That’s not possible in Akron because of a misguided charter change pushed to the ballot in 2008 by a small group of activists upset by Mayor Don Plusquellic’s plan to lease the city’s sewer system to generate money for college scholarships.
The overly broad amendment prevailed at the polls, preventing the sale, transfer or lease of any part of any city utility without voter approval. (At the same time, the idea of leasing the sewer system was defeated.) Then, in 2010, voters rejected leasing the steam plant to a private operator.
Children’s deserves the chance to find an owner or operator of the steam utility and work with other downtown customers. At this point, the utility has a negative value to the city because it has been so costly to run, with more repair work necessary in the future. It’s best at this point to let the utility’s customers decide its future.