Akron City Council will take more time to consider a plan to ask voters to decide whether city water customers should share the cost of others’ unexpectedly high bills.
A fractious City Council discussed a plan Monday that would cap water bills at no more than 1½ times the normal bill, determined by averaging the past 12 monthly bills.
Proponents, including council members who rent property and have tenants who can stiff them with exorbitant water bills (other utility bills follow tenants, not property owners), said the plan is “commonsense” relief for residents already facing higher rates to pay for a massive overhaul of the city sewage and water system.
The mayor’s office, along with council members Jeff Fusco and Bob Hoch, decried the proposal as “purely political.”
The proposed ballot measure, developed by elected and non-elected landlords, has illustrated divisions on council as some of its 13 elected members line up against each other and Mayor Dan Horrigan.
“There is nothing commonsense about this,” said Horrigan chief of staff James Hardy. “This is an incentive for landlords or anyone else who are negligent in keeping up their property to basically get free water.”
Seated in the audience, Ernie Tarle — a former councilman who manages rental property and helped councilman and business partner Zach Milkovich develop the plan — chuckled.
Tarle announced during a City Council meeting three weeks ago that Milkovich, who owns several Akron properties listed under variations of his name and businesses, and Bruce Kilby, another councilman who owns eight city properties with his wife, would introduce the catastrophic water bill relief plan for voters to decide. Tarle said the city was taking too long to address the issue.
Hardy said Horrigan’s staff is working “every single day” to reduce overall costs of the $1.4 billion sewer project, from pushing green infrastructure to better financing that will bring down rates for residents. Hardy said Horrigan’s finance and public works offices have been developing an alternative plan to address inordinately high bills from leaking or busted water pipes and toilets.
Tarle, Milkovich and Kilby criticized the city’s plan to pay for new sewers by taxing the poor, the elderly and landlords.
In a letter dated June 21, Milkovich asked city law director Eve V. Belfance to write up the ballot language for their plan, “given your reluctance to draft legislation Mr. Kilby and I have requested,” he wrote.
Hardy said a special election would cost $100,000.
Kilby argued that the language the mayor’s law director came up with was purposefully negative, making what he said was an unnecessary reference to landlords in order to confuse voters.
Tara Samples — a council member who said she was “astute” in reading legislation — also said she was confused by the ballot language. She and Russ Neal (also a landlord) attended the meeting to support the plan, though they do not sit on the Rules Committee that discussed the issue. Linda Omobien also approved of action on the issue, though she and others stopped short of outright endorsing the Milkovich-Kilby ballot proposal publicly.
Meanwhile, no one could say how much the plan itself would cost. And the lack of data on how many customers would get relief was baffling for all sides.
Public services director John Moore is working with the city’s billing software to calculate how many water bills can be expected to spike above 150 percent, triggering the proposed cap. Hardy said the data would be made public when available.
Hoch said the simple plan — which says everyone has a right to water and no one should pay more than 150 percent — opens the door to fraud. Customers with pools could fill up theirs and the neighbors, wash their cars, hose off the house and let the local children run through a sprinkler, all “without paying a dime” more than 150 percent of their typically lower bill, Hoch illustrated.
What’s certain is that if some pay less, others will pay more. And that, Fusco said, may not be fair.
The city’s plan to make the proposal work includes shifting the foregone costs (anything over 150 percent of the average monthly bill) onto the remaining Akron customers, which include about 90,000 of the 300,000 regional customers serviced by the municipal water department.
Beacon Journal staff writer Paula Schleis contributed to this report. Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @ABJDoug.