Three years ago, Akron voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot issue that would have allowed the city to lease its beleaguered downtown heating and cooling system.
With the cost of maintaining the 34-year-old system mounting and millions in additional repairs needed, the city this year came up with another possible solution: give the plant to Akron Children’s Hospital. The facility, one of the biggest users of the system, is in the midst of a major expansion and needs to know it will have reliable heating and cooling for its new buildings.
The result: Issue 4 on Tuesday’s ballot.
The measure asks Akron voters for permission to donate the steam system to Children’s Hospital, which would then, with the city’s help, find a company to buy or enter into a long-term lease and invest the estimated $35 million needed to update the system.
One big advantage that this year’s ballot holds over the failed 2010 issue is that Children’s Hospital is a popular institution with vast community support. The city has been trying to hammer home this idea with a simplistic campaign aimed at wooing voters.
“By putting Children’s Hospital in there, then [voters] understand it must be good for Children’s,” Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic said. “Otherwise, [voters] have nothing to do with [the plant]. They say, ‘It doesn’t serve me.’?”
Stephanie York, the city’s spokeswoman who is leading the campaign, boiled the message down to this: “It’s good for Children’s. They want [the plant]. We don’t want it.”
Bill Considine, president of Akron Children’s Hospital, said it would cost $6 million to $9 million for the hospital to build its own heating and cooling system — money that could be put to better use. He favors the proposal because it would provide heating and cooling for Children’s Hospital and Akron General Medical Center, which don’t have their own boilers, and would be less costly than each of the system’s 50 commercial and 71 residential customers installing their own.
“When I first saw the list of all of the users, it was sobering,” Considine said. “It underlines how important this is for the community. I think we all know there is a better solution than what we have in play right now.”
City leaders had high hopes in 1979 for the Recycle Energy System (RES) plant on Opportunity Parkway when it was opened to replace the steam service that Ohio Edison once provided, with the added benefit of also burning city trash.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Jim Alkire, who was Akron’s planning director at the time. “We were establishing a new frontier. ... We all thought there was a real possibility of a long-term solution of energy and getting rid of garbage.”
City leaders also thought the system would become a money-maker.
“I asked, ‘Why not let the private sector do this?’?” recalled Plusquellic, who was a young councilman at the time. “They said, ‘We will make so much money off of it. We will hire more police and put more parks in Kenmore. ‘I thought, ‘It sounds like a good idea.’?”
Instead, the plant created problems and drained money almost from the day it opened.
Burning trash was tough on the equipment and ultimately proved deadly, with an explosion in 1984 killing three workers and injuring seven.
The city agreed to stop burning trash in 1995 under an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of concern that the plant was releasing dioxin, a suspected cancer-causing pollutant. Akron began using other fuels — natural gas, wood chips, rubber and coal — to run the system.
Problems didn’t stop there, however.
The steam system never turned into a profit-maker, and Akron Thermal, the company running the system at the time, filed for bankruptcy in 2007, eventually handing over operation to Akron in September 2009. The city then contracted with Akron Energy Systems LLC to run the system.
Since 2007, the city has invested $28.4 million in the steam plant, including water and sewer upgrades. That figure, according to city documents, includes about $13 million for repairs since 2010 to keep the system running, with the money going to 119 projects aimed at improving facility and employee safety, reducing pollution and making the plant more efficient and reliable.
Akron is the only large Ohio city that still owns its heating and cooling system, said John Moore, Akron’s public service director.
Only about one-fifth of the nine-story plant is used these days.
A digital sign on the wall during a recent tour showed that the 44 employees had gone 1,305 days without lost time due to an accident.
The control room has equipment that looks like it is from the 1970s, although Marc Divis, president of Akron Energy Systems, says the guts have been swapped out and upgraded. The system still has its original warning system — buzzers, bad; bells, good — though it is backed up by computer-controlled alarms.
The plant uses three 1979 boilers, backed up by two others, installed in 1962 and 1967 in a nearby former B.F. Goodrich building constructed in 1908. Both buildings have rusty beams and pipes.
Moore said new gas boilers are needed to replace the aging ones that have a tendency to break down, and an in-depth study of all equipment needs to be done.
“There’s 100 ways to do this. We need to find out the best way,” he said.
Moore said reliability is paramount because two hospitals depend on the system. Other customers include the city of Akron, Summit County, Akron Public Schools (administration building), Akron Art Museum, AT&T, St. Bernard’s Church, Canal Place Limited, Akron Baseball LLC, Valley Rubber Mixings Inc., and Rogers Industrial Products Inc., according to city documents.
Two previous ballot issues and Children’s Hospital’s expansion led to the latest proposal before voters.
In 2008, voters faced two proposals, one to lease sewers to fund scholarships, which was defeated, and a charter change that was overwhelmingly approved, requiring the city to get voter approval before leasing, selling or transferring any public utilities.
Two years later, residents voted against a charter amendment that would have allowed the city to lease its steam system.
Earlier this year, Children’s Hospital leaders informed the city that it needed an answer by the end of the year about the future of the steam system. The hospital, in the midst of a $200 million expansion project, could build its own steam plant, but would rather see the current system improved.
As part of the pro-sale campaign, about 100 signs have been placed on city, county and school properties around Akron that don’t mention the steam plant. They read: “Akron Children’s Hospital. Not a tax. Vote for Issue 4.” Eight billboards read: “Reliable steam” and “reasonable cost.”
If the issue passes, the city and hospital would negotiate an agreement on the donation. The plan would be for an operator to immediately take over the system with a sale or long-term lease, with talks already having begun with the current operator and others that might be interested.
“Children’s does not intend to be in the steam business,” Considine said.
The city would retain mineral rights for the property, reap the bulk of the profits in the event of a sale and would maintain the responsibility for any problems uncovered down the road.
Hospital and city officials hope former customers, including the University of Akron and Summa Akron City Hospital, would return if the system were upgraded.
If the ballot issue fails, Considine said Children’s would build a steam plant for itself.
“We would have a sensible transition with the city and conversations with General and other downtown users, too,” he said. “We would make sure no one was left without steam for a period of time.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith.