Knowing he soon would be getting a higher sewer bill, Akron resident Bob Taylor called the city to enroll in its discount program.
The program is open to those already getting a utility discount through the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program. But, Taylor, who gets the HEAP discount, was told he couldn’t join the city’s program.
The reason: He rents and doesn’t own the home in which he lives.
Akron’s discount is only available to city residents who hold the deed on the properties, not to those who rent.
That’s bad news for people like Taylor, who pays the bills at the Chapel Hill-area house where he lives, though the property is in his sister’s name. Taylor saw his sewer and water cost rise from $35 to $53 on his latest bill, which was the first to include a rate increase that the Akron City Council approved in February.
“I’m on a fixed income,” said Taylor, 74, who is living on a small pension from Republic Steel and Social Security. “Every little bit hurts or helps.”
Taylor is among many Akron sewer customers — inside and outside the city — who are unhappy with their higher sewer bills. They have been expressing their displeasure by contacting city officials and council members through phone calls and letters and attending council members’ ward meetings.
“We are obviously aware that anytime you increase the amount taxpayers have to pay, there will be people who will be more significantly impacted,” Deputy Public Service Director Phil Montgomery said. “We have to look at the whole picture for the city of Akron.”
The legislation council approved in February that increased sewer rates by nearly 70 percent over the next two years also required the administration to develop a new discount program by January 2015. A committee looking at the new program had its first meeting last week and is examining discount options other cities use.
“We’re on the ground floor of developing this program,” Montgomery said. “We don’t know the parameters yet. The goal is to expand who is eligible.”
About 300 Akron residents are taking advantage of the HEAP discount, according to Andre Blaylock, Akron’s utilities manager. Residents enrolled in the program will pay half of the increased amount being charged to other customers this year, Montgomery said.
The city sends sewer bills to the person who owns the property being billed, not the person who is renting, Montgomery said.
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 went up Feb. 1, appearing on March bills, and will rise again Jan. 1. Rates also rose for sewer customers outside Akron.
The state’s HEAP discount, provided to low-income residents to help with heating costs, is available to whomever is paying the utility bill. That person must meet income thresholds, but isn’t required to own the property, according to a HEAP representative.
Lack of a plan
Some Akron sewer customers are unhappy about the city’s mammoth sewer project, which the latest estimates peg at $1.4 billion, even though they didn’t see significant increases in their latest bills.
Bob Smith, a retiree in Fairlawn, is among them. He’s concerned that the city doesn’t have a definitive plan for its project and that the cost for improvements could continue to rise while the plan is being developed.
“By the time the plan comes to fruition, it will be $3 [billion] to $4 billion and my great-grandkids will be paying it off,” said Smith, 71. “They’re just stealing from us.”
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 after heavy rainfall (or snow melts) because of an aging combined stormwater and sanitary sewer system. The city is seeking permission from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for an integrated plan, which would include an affordability study of the sewer improvements being considered and would allow the city to examine environmentally friendly alternatives.
Mayor Don Plusquellic said during an update on the sewer project to council members Monday that Akron has contracted with MWH, which is based in Colorado but has an office in Cleveland, to help the city navigate an integrated plan. He said MWH helped Baltimore with its process.
Plusquellic said MWH officials will be meeting with officials with the U.S. EPA’s District 5 office to discuss Akron’s project.
Plusquellic also said the U.S. EPA is working on new guidelines on how a community’s ability to pay should be weighed in deciding the scope of its sewer project and the amount of time that should be permitted for the work to be completed.
Because Akron’s water and sewer bills are calculated based on water usage, customers can take steps to conserve water to lower their monthly bills, city officials say.
Montgomery suggested basic steps like checking to make sure plumbing, including toilets, isn’t leaking and installing shower heads with flow regulators. He said people who have a garden and water a lot can contact the city to request a second meter that will be billed only for water usage and not sewage use. The second meter is free, though the customer must pay for its installation.
Taylor has been trying to take steps to cut down on the amount of water he uses. He turns off the water when he brushes his teeth, uses warm water instead of hot when he does the wash and waits until the dishes pile up to clean them.
Sarah Wassam, an Akron resident and working mother of two, also has been trying to save water by taking shorter showers and doing laundry less frequently. She said her latest bill was $97.16, up from about $85 last month and an average of $45 a month last year. She said she and her husband have been working longer shifts at work to try to make up for the additional expense, though that means extra child-care costs.
Wassam was so upset about the additional cost that she recently sent a letter to Plusquellic, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and the Beacon Journal. She said the charges “are becoming a financial danger to my family and others, regardless of income.”
Wassam thinks a discount program could be helpful, though she wonders what the parameters will be and also how the city would make up the lost revenue.
“This increase in just the past year is making it difficult to pay other bills,” said Wassam, 27. “Diapers and food for our children come first, always, but we must also be able to have the water to keep them healthy.
‘‘If I am unable to pay this each month, are they going to shut off my water? This should never have to be a concern to anyone doing everything they can to make these payments.”
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.