When Akron City Council members cast their votes on a controversial sewer rate increase Monday, they weren’t thinking only about whether their constituents could afford it or which plan was best for fixing the sewers.
They also were concerned about the next election.
Several council members mentioned the 2015 election in their speeches before voting 8-5 to approve the 70 percent increase. They clearly are worried about how their decisions could help or hurt their chances to win another term. They also brought up how sewer rates were an issue in the 2013 council election, with campaign literature claiming that monthly rates could go as high as $150 to $300.
“If this means I don’t get re-elected, I believe [voting yes is] the right thing to do,” said Councilwoman Marilyn Keith, who is starting her second term as the Ward 8 representative.
Steve Brooks, associate director of the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, said it is difficult to say whether the sewer vote will affect the next council election, especially because it is so far away. He said the fact that two years will pass could bode well for council members who voted for the legislation because residents might have gotten used to the higher rates by then and it might no longer be a key issue.
Brooks, however, said council members’ opponents could decide to bring the issue back up during the election.
“This is one [issue] that can possibly be used,” Brooks said. “I think you have to be concerned.”
On the other hand, Brooks said, if the legislation had been defeated, this could have come with negative consequences that could have become campaign fodder.
Mayor Don Plusquellic had warned that, without a rate increase, Akron would not be able to cover the debt that must be paid this year for previous sewer projects and could get fined for failing to move ahead with additional sewer projects.
“If the other predictions were correct, it would have been more severe the longer they wait,” Brooks said. “This may have been the lesser of two evils.”
Sewer legislation approved Monday will raise monthly rates for the median residential customer in Akron from $33.73 to $45.72 this year and to $57.05 next year. The rates will go up effective Feb. 1, appearing on March bills, and on Jan. 1 of next year.
Sewer rates also will rise for customers who live outside Akron and for commercial and industrial businesses.
The legislation also allows Plusquellic to proceed with negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an integrated plan that has been permitted in other cities. Such a plan would include an affordability study of the sewer improvements being considered for Akron’s project and would allow the city to examine environmentally friendly alternatives.
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 stormwater/sanitary sewer system.
Council President Garry Moneypenny, in his second stint on council, said this was the most researched vote he has seen. He said members were aware of the potential ramifications for their constituents — and for themselves at election time.
“I’m glad we don’t have these kinds of votes every week,” he said.
Several council members talked about consultations with constituents before making their decisions.
Donnie Kammer, in his second term as Ward 7 councilman, said he decided to vote against the legislation after talking by phone to about 25 of his constituents over the weekend.
“I don’t think residents can afford that much of an increase right now,” he said.
Rich Swirsky, the new Ward 1 councilman, reached the opposite conclusion after talking to residents from the Highland Square area. He said many of his constituents favor Akron pursuing an integrated plan and urged him to support the legislation.
In his first speech from the council floor, Swirsky noted that opponents of the legislation didn’t offer another proposal.
“I haven’t seen any alternative to what the administration has presented,” he said. “Everybody loves the environment. Everybody loves apple pie. You’ve got to pay for those apples.”
If the integrated plan goes through, Mike Freeman, one of the longer-serving council members, thinks this bodes well for him and the other council members who voted for the sewer legislation.
“I honestly believe, if this plans works out, we will have folks in two years say, ‘Why did you not vote for that plan?’ ” he said.
One resident who addressed council Monday night predicted, however, that favorable votes on the legislation will come back to haunt those council members.
“None of you people will be voted back in,” said resident Theresa Shimp. “People are not that stupid.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com. 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.