By Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writer
Akron sewer customers could see their rates rise 300 percent, but not as high as $300, with the improvements the city must make to its system, Mayor Don Plusquellic told council members Monday.
Plusquellic said the highest the rates are projected to go is $150 a month, which is roughly triple the average $46 monthly bill that customers are now paying.
“What we’ve talked about are rates that are 2½ to 3 times what they are now — not $300,” Plusquellic said during the tense, two-hour special committee meeting. “That’s more than what they should pay.”
Council members asked for the update on the city’s estimated $870 million project, aimed at addressing an environmental lawsuit that is still pending before a federal judge.
Plusquellic used the opportunity, which came on council’s final day before its summer break, to again detail the steps Akron has taken to make improvements to its sewer system and curb overflows into local waterways. He challenged Councilman Bruce Kilby for statements he made last Monday that accused the city of not acting quickly enough to fix the sewer system. Kilby also at that meeting referenced potential $300 sewer rates.
“To have anybody stand on this floor or go door-to-door and say we didn’t do anything is an absolute lie,” Plusquellic said.
Before the meeting, city employees rolled in three carts stacked with folders and documents and displayed two large charts explaining the history of Akron’s sewer project. They also passed out several documents and articles related to the project.
Plusquellic gave council members a list of the amount Akron has spent on capital improvements to its sewer system since he became mayor in 1987, with the total topping $300 million this year.
The meeting was at times feisty, with Councilman Ken Jones attempting to keep it civil by asking council members to ask direct questions, rather than making statements.
The most heated exchanges were between Plusquellic and Kilby, with Kilby questioning why the city can’t find another way to pay for the sewer project besides raising rates.
“Are you going to do that or are you going to sock it to our rate payers?” asked Kilby, the Ward 2 councilman who is running for an at-large seat in the Sept. 10 primary.
“That’s enough,” Jones warned.
“We’ve looked at other cities,” Plusquellic answered. “None went through. Pick one. Make a stand. Tell us what you want to implement.”
Plusquellic said other cities have considered alternative methods, but none has actually adopted them. He said Fort Wayne, Ind., considered a combined income tax, sales tax and rate increase, and Indianapolis looked at taxing rental cars, but didn’t score the support of council. He joked that the city could try to grow trees that produce money.
“There are no federal or state dollars,” he said.
Kilby has floated the idea of assessing property owners for the sewer repairs, rather than raising rates.
Plusquellic said this wouldn’t account for the 17 percent of sewer customers who live in outlying communities and who also should be sharing in the cost of the repairs.
Plusquellic said the city may appeal the affordability aspect once it has an agreement in place, a step that Indianapolis took.
Councilwoman Linda Omobien suggested that the administration provide council members with a more detailed breakdown of how much is being spent on sewer upgrades and what these improvements involve.
Plusquellic said this isn’t an easy topic with easy answers and suggested that Omobien find the answers she’s seeking by looking at documents already provided to council members or that are readily available.
Several council members asked about how the administration will ensure that Akron residents get the jobs that will accompany the mammoth sewer project.
Plusquellic said the administration plans to take steps toward achieving this goal, including requiring contractors to hire a certain percentage of Akron residents, providing training opportunities, and working with the local trades and unions to make sure the local workforce is ready for the work.
In other business, council members approved resolutions that:
• Urged the Akron Civil Service Commission to “review, study and modify” its hiring practices for felons. Plusquellic recently sent a letter to the commission asking it to take this step.
Several community activists spoke during council’s public comment period, thanking them for passing this resolution.
• Thanked three Cabinet members who soon will retire for their service. Plusquellic hasn’t yet named replacements for Deputy Mayor Rick Merolla or Laraine Duncan, deputy mayor of intergovernmental relations. He chose Phil Montgomery as the new deputy service director to replace retiring Ron Williamson.
Plusquellic called Merolla his “right-hand person” and said he had a wealth of experience, having worked in planning, finance and public service.
Merolla said being Plusquellic’s chief of staff was an “honor I never thought I would be able to achieve.” He thanked city employees, his fellow Cabinet members and “the best mayor of the United States.”
Council’s next scheduled meeting is Sept. 9, though Council President Garry Moneypenny said he will call a special meeting if legislation is needed related to local hiring for the sewer project.