If you’re an Akron sewer customer, you’ll pay more on your next bill.
Akron City Council voted 8-5 Monday to approve legislation that will boost sewer rates by nearly 70 percent in the next two years.
The council members who supported the legislation argued they had little choice because of the debts the city must meet for prior sewer improvements and the potential fines for not moving ahead with additional upgrades.
“Our backs are to the wall,” said Councilman Jeff Fusco. “Nobody wants to increase rates at this time or any time. We have an obligation to stand up and do what we have to do.”
Councilman Mike Freeman put it this way: “We all love to flush.”
The council members who voted against the legislation said they thought the rate hikes were too steep. A few also said they couldn’t support raising rates when they don’t yet know the details on a new sewer plan Mayor Don Plusquellic is proposing.
“I’m not going to spend anybody else’s money until I can look them in the face and explain why they have to pay,” said Councilman Mike Williams.
Councilwoman Margo Sommerville said she has a lot of seniors in her ward and “they cannot afford it.”
The council members who voted for the legislation were: Freeman, Fusco, Bob Hoch, Jim Hurley, Marilyn Keith, Garry Moneypenny, Russel Neal, Jr., and Rich Swirsky. Those voting against it were: Donnie Kammer, Linda Omobien, Tara Mosley Samples, Sommerville and Williams.
A majority of council — or seven votes — was needed for the legislation to pass. The proposal lacked the nine votes that were required for it to be passed as an emergency measure that immediately becomes effective. Law Director Cheri Cunningham, however, said this won’t delay the start of the rate increases.
Monthly rates for the median Akron sewer customer will rise from $33.73 to $45.72 this year and to $57.05 next year, an overall increase of 69.1 percent. The rates will go up Feb. 1 appearing on March bills, and Jan. 1 of next year.
Akron’s sewer project is the result of a federal environmental lawsuit that requires the city to take steps to address sewage overflows into local waterways that happen during heavy rains because of an aging combined storm water and sanitary sewer system. The latest cost estimate for the improvements was $1.4 billion.
The sewer legislation allows Mayor Don Plusquellic to proceed with negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an integrated plan that would include an affordability study of the sewer improvements being considered for the project and would allow the city to examine environmentally friendly alternatives.
The vote on the sewer legislation happened while council also is considering a $226 million capital budget for 2014 that includes at least a 30 percent sewer rate hike to cover the approximately $8 million the city owes this year in sewer debts and existing contracts for previous upgrades. Council had public hearings on the proposed budget Monday — no one spoke — and will vote on the budget next Monday.
Akron is currently providing a break on sewer rates to residents who qualify for the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). The legislation requires the city to develop a new discount program by January 2015.
The legislation also forms a new committee with 11 members, including a representative from each of Akron’s 10 wards, that will review and make recommendations on the hiring of local residents, minorities and women on the sewer project. The members will be appointed by the mayor with council’s approval.
Willie Smith, an Akron resident, urged council during the Public Utilities Committee Monday afternoon to make sure Akron residents get a fair share of the sewer work, especially because they will be paying for it.
“You can boost Akron’s economy,” he said. “Make it happen.”
Several residents spoke during the public comment period at the Monday night meeting, with some opposed to the sewer legislation and others supportive. One resident in the audience clapped after the vote was taken. No one else joined her.
“I thank people who had the courage to vote ‘no,’” said Akron resident Theresa Shimp. “Where do you expect us to get the money that you’re promising the EPA? You can’t get blood out of a stone.”
David Moledor, a resident of the Hickory Street area, said he changed his mind about the legislation after learning more about the integrated plan during a meeting he organized Sunday for residents in his area and council members about the sewer project. He is hoping the integrated plan could be less disruptive to the towpath than the long-term-control plan currently in place, which could result in the towpath being cut off for several years and in the destruction of several acres of trees.
“To come up with the integrated plan, you have to invest in it,” he said. “That investment is the rate increase. I salute all of you who voted for the rate increase.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.