The sewer rate hikes Akron City Council is considering are large, but so are the potential consequences if they aren’t approved, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic told council members who delayed action Monday.

Without additional money, Akron might be unable to pay the $8 million it owes this year on the interest and principal for loans and bonds for previous sewer improvements, Plusquellic said.

In addition, if Akron doesn’t move forward with additional sewer improvements, a federal judge could levy fines against the city, likely resulting in another lengthy court battle, he warned.

“If you take a dive and vote no, we could be facing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in fines,” Plusquellic said during a two-hour Public Utilities Committee meeting. “There is not an easy answer.”

Plusquellic this month proposed legislation that would boost monthly sewer rates for the median customer from $33.73 to $45.72 this year and to $57.05 next year, an overall increase of 69.1 percent. The rates would go up this Feb. 1 (appearing on March bills), and Jan. 1 of next year.

Council members, who asked numerous questions about Plusquellic’s proposal and the status of the city’s complex sewer project Monday, are expected to vote on the legislation next Monday. Seven of the 13 council members would need to approve the proposal for it to be adopted.

Council President Garry Moneypenny said he wanted to give council members more time to get their questions answered and to talk to their constituents. He said he hasn’t counted to see if the legislation has enough support to pass.

In addition to raising rates, the legislation would urge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to accept Plusquellic’s proposal that the city enter into an “integrated plan” that has been approved in other cities, including Minneapolis. This plan would include an evaluation of the affordability of the sewer upgrades Akron is considering and also would explore potential environmentally friendly options.

The integrated plan would include an affordability component set by the federal government that limits yearly rate increases to no more than 2 percent of a city’s five-year median household income, which is $33,598 in Akron.

Plusquellic’s proposal adds $1 to that rate to ensure sewer customers are paying more than the federal threshold. The mayor said rates would not increase under this payment structure unless the median household income in the city also increases, in which case he would return to council to ask for another rate bump.

City residents, along with those in nine surrounding communities that also use Akron’s sewage or treatment facilities, would be affected by a rate hike.

Some questions answered

Council members submitted questions to the administration on the legislation in the past two weeks. They covered a range of topics, from what Akron already has done to fix its combined sewer system to whether the rate hikes could be phased in over a longer period. Public Service Director John Moore answered the questions in a memo that said the city has made improvements to its sewer plant and done other projects to reduce overflows into local waterways. He said the city must reach an agreement with the federal and state EPAs on additional improvements, which will include how long the project will take.

In the Public Utilities Committee meeting, Councilwoman Linda Omobien questioned Plusquellic about the differences between the long-term control plan U.S. District Court Judge John Adams approved last week and the integrated plan the mayor now is advocating.

Plusquellic said the main differences are the affordability measure and the ability to look for new technology, including green techniques, every few years as the project progresses. He said Bob Perciasepe, an assistant administrator with the U.S. EPA, told him, Moneypenny and Councilman Jeff Fusco during a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting that the EPA would work with Akron in the next several months on an integrated plan.

He said Perciasepe told them that “Akron may just be the model” for other cities.

Plusquellic said the federal government also said in a recent court filing that it would be willing to consider revisions to Akron’s plan if the city can show the need for the changes and if the state EPA and Adams approve them.

Councilwoman Tara Samples asked Plusquellic about discounts for low-income residents.

Akron is providing a break on sewer rates to residents who qualify for the state’s Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP). The legislation requires the city to develop a new discount program by January 2015.

Plusquellic said not many cities have adopted such a program, and he invited council members to share any ideas they have for the best way to approach this challenge.

Fusco said the majority of council wants safe drinking water, but might not want to increase sewer rates to get it.

“There comes a time when we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror,” he said. “Next week will be the week.”

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.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.