the Beacon Journal editorial board

Elected landlords and property owners on the Akron City Council are backing a proposed ballot issue that would limit city utility bills to a maximum of 150 percent of the average during the past 12 months. In an unusual move, Ernie Tarle, a landlord and former councilman (eventually recalled by voters) announced the measure from the public gallery on behalf of council members Bruce Kilby and Zack Milkovich. The proposal has picked up support from, among others, council member Russ Neal, also a landlord.

The populist-sounding idea, clearly designed to appeal to customers facing higher rates due to the city’s massive sewer reconstruction project, invites plenty of questions. For now, it remains in committee as the details are sorted out. It is unclear, for example, how many customers would hit the limit, how much revenue would have to be made up and whether customers in the city limits or across the wider service area would cover the difference.

While a cap likely would help some people with lower incomes who face sharp spikes in their utility bills due to undetected leaks, it risks subsidizing negligence and lack of upkeep by landlords, who ultimately are responsible for utility bills when tenants leave. It also might encourage misbehavior by average customers tempted to open the taps in the summer months, filling pools, watering yards excessively, knowing they would not be charged the full amount.

Rather than rush to the ballot (long a tactic of Tarle and his allies), the administration of Mayor Dan Horrigan is taking a better, more focused approach. That effort should be given a chance to work before the council turns to voters — or Tarle, Milkovich and Kilby start a petition drive without gathering all the relevant facts.

First, the mayor is pushing to drive down the cost of the city’s massive sewer overhaul, now estimated at $1.4 billion, which would ease rate increases. Strategies include financing the project for a longer period of time and seeking federal approval of modifications that use wetlands and other natural means to absorb storm water before it gets into the sanitary sewers, leading to overflows that pollute the Cuyahoga River.

The city also is working on policies that would help homeowners of modest means who face high bills because of leaks. Such cases now are handled on an individual basis, with, for example, extended payment periods. If leaking water doesn’t go into the sewer system, the sewer portion of the utility bill is forgiven.

The city also has started a program called Akron Cares, under which utility customers can make donations to help those who document financial difficulty due to unemployment, divorce, high medical bills or participation in a utility assistance program. The donations are matched with city funds. This complements rate relief available through the Homestead Exemption for seniors and the Home Energy Assistance Program.

Such initiatives promise lesser and greater results. What they deserve is time to see whether they, or similar alternatives, are effective at easing the burden of the expensive yet necessary sewer project.