A close observer of Norton politics, seasoned by some three decades in local government, remarked this week that nothing had prepared him for the confrontation now taking place in the southwestern Summit County community.
The subject is sewers the Ohio EPA wants for areas with failing septic systems. Norton voters defeated a charter amendment in August that would have ended assessments for water and sewer lines, stopped the city from charging tap-in fees and capped monthly water and sewer bills at $35 a month, with a maximum increase of 2 percent a year.
In the wake of defeat, another set of petitions was circulated. A newly proposed charter amendment calls for residents to pay no more than $5,000 for the construction of and connection to water and sewer lines. Those currently paying assessments would have their payments halted if they had paid $5,000.
On a 5-2 vote, the Norton City Council fought back this week, defeating an ordinance to hold a Nov. 19 special election, begging to be sued by petitioner William Paluch, a Nash Heights resident, who will win.
The council majority doesn’t seem to care. The law calls for the council to act “forthwith” once petition signatures have been verified, which happened early this month.
In this situation, “forthwith” means “immediately.” In other words, the council doesn’t have a choice. It must act quickly once petition signatures have been validated, setting a special election in 60 days to 120 days.
City Council President Don Nicolard and his allies want to avoid a special election that could cost as much as $40,000 by stalling long enough for the election to take place Feb. 4, the next regularly scheduled special election, saving the city almost $30,000.
Besides, Nicolard does not want to go on record supporting a special election, fearing his vote would be misconstrued. A court stepping in would be fine with him.
What this maneuvering obscures is that the sewer amendment is very risky business for the entire city, a place that needs infrastructure improvements to support growth.
Although the wording may be slightly different, with residents making some contribution, the practical effects of the Paluch amendment would be virtually the same as the earlier effort by a group called Citizens 4 Norton.
Services would have to be cut to support a very generous sewer subsidy for a relatively small number of homes (about 255) in the Nash Heights area, long plagued by leaking septic systems.
Under the city’s normal practice, homeowners in the Nash Heights area would shoulder at least 30 percent of the cost of a sewer project, or about $2.4 million out of $8 million. Under the $5,000 cap, the amount would drop to around $1.2 million.
What’s more, amendment language covering those already paying assessments would put the city on the hook for paying off more than $3 million in outstanding bonds.
So, if the amendment passes, would the city just stop building sewers?
That’s a possibility, officials say. Facing an Ohio Environmental Protection order to build sewer lines in the Nash Heights neighborhood, Norton officials might not be able to figure out a way to provide municipal services and take on more of the cost of construction.
Something would have to give, in all probability, sewers, although not in a way petitioners would like. The Ohio EPA, having detected raw sewage in the Nash Heights neighborhood, would not be stopped by a city charter amendment.
Under this scenario, Norton would give its sewers to Summit County, which would follow the EPA order, charging residents for the full cost of the $8 million project. Other areas in the city where septic systems are failing could expect the same thing.
Before all the petitioning, Norton was coming to grips with its sewer issues, and it may still do so if the amendment is defeated at the polls, by continuing to look for scarce grants and low-interest loans to help soften the financial burden.
If not, homeowners are likely to face the full cost of sewer projects ordered by the state EPA. Worse, the amendment could provide a rallying point for a takeover of the council by an anti-growth faction itching for more futile battles to stop or slow development, and a tax base large enough to support adequate services to Norton residents.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.