City tries to tackle the utility rate issue

STEUBENVILLE — Members of Steubenville City Council made it clear Tuesday evening that the utility bills won’t be going up by $23.70 in October as proposed in a rate study released by the city administration in July.

During a utilities committee meeting, council went over projects and proposed schedules with Finance Director David Lewis and started looking for ways to scale back and spread out rate increases. Lewis said it would take a $6.60 increase on the minimum, 2,000-gallon water and sewer bill just for the water and sewer funds to break even.

The city began taking a close look at major needs in its water and sewer system after the downtown was without water for 12 days in January because of an inability to isolate a big leak. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and issued requirements for a valve replacement program, and work progressed on a consent decree covering needs in the sewerage system.

Lewis offered details of the projects facing the city’s water, sewer, infrastructure and sanitation funds.

The simplest change proposed was to cut back on the number of garbage packers to buy initially and when to buy them to set up a rotation of the fleet.

More complex was dealing with major projects facing the water fund, including an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency requirement for valve replacements in the water system and major repairs to the West End water tower, as well as an aged aeration system in the sewage treatment plant.

Lewis and Water and Wastewater Superintendent Chuck Murphy said the rate study was based on budgeting without grants or other financial assistance because the city cannot plan a five-year stretch on grants it might not receive. Murphy said the city won’t be able to apply for grants years in advance, but only as construction phases approach. He said he’s working with the OEPA to see if the $7.1 million aerator project can be broken into phases, allowing the city to spread out the cost.

Council members also suggested revisiting the number of employees proposed to be hired to better maintain the system. An administrator and administrative assistant for the sewer system, plus a minimum three-person valve crew for the water side were included in the proposal.

He said the 305 critical valves the OEPA wanted the city to work on immediately have all been inspected and some of them are functional, although he didn’t have a statistical breakdown ready for council yet. Murphy said he has some preliminary numbers that appear to favor contracting out the valve crew work, but he wants to check those further and is concerned with contractual issues with the city union.

Murphy said he learned through the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association of a program that allows the city to know which grants it is eligible to obtain called the Small Community Environmental Infrastructure Group. He said he plans to have a city delegation at that group’s meeting in October. He said nearly every grant program that could be available to the city is represented and the city would know which ones it could obtain based on projects coming due.

He vowed to “leave no stone unturned” in seeking grants for the city’s water and sewer projects.

“I agree with everyone on council to try to keep this as low as possible, and this is what Dave and I have been striving to do, but at the end of the day, you have to realize we have a big problem and a Band-Aid won’t do it,” he said. “We want to be sure we can supply water and keep roads from collapsing (by being undermined by big leaks).”

City Manager Jim Mavromatis said he’s met with the OEPA director and other officials and they’ve been helpful, but the OEPA will want to see movement on the city’s part. He said the work is a 10-to-15-year series of projects at best.

He said he has been asking residents what they do when the gas company or Xfinity raises its rates.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “What do I need to survive on? Water or cable? We have a lot of issues here. Council, all the questions you are asking are good questions, but you have to answer. Your crisis came in January when you lost the water downtown. We have to deal with this issue. We have to be out of debt to be able to borrow money. All the grants aren’t free, and you have to have money to pay. If you do not, you won’t get any grants. You have to make the decisions. I don’t expect council to make decisions without the facts before them.”

He said additional numbers will be available next week.

Council discussed its billing and the possibility for changes in commercial accounts after being questioned by Tom Hartwig, senior vice president of Arcadis, the city’s water consultant about how commercial accounts and residential accounts are billed. He suggested the city consider charging by unit and making sure businesses pay a fair share of the infrastructure fees for water and sewer in addition to the regular billing.

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel explained that the West End water tower project is more expensive than the other two towers at more than $1 million compared with less than $500,000 because the tank has no redundancy. Pumps have to be installed and special smaller tanks used to supply the West End with water while the tower is refurbished, driving up the cost.

Murphy said he knows there are residents who have unclear water and it is the result of not maintaining a regular line flushing program. He said installing and repairing valves will allow the city to better flush its system. He said a fire hydrant replacement program was put on hold this year but he will seek grants and try to get the program back on track.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna issued a pair of proposals that would increase the city water bills by less than what was proposed in the rate study. One would see the total utility bill at $79.92 and the other would see it stand at $74.92 instead of more than $92 proposed for October in the rate study. He said an increase of about $11.10 is what he wants to stay within.

Lewis countered that getting out of debt and hiring two administrative people would mean only about $4.60 would be left to spend and to get financing for the estimated $29.75 million in water and sewer projects the city faces.

Villamagna cautioned that too steep a water rate increase could endanger renewals of the city’s income tax levies of 0.3 percent and 0.7 percent, which would mean cuts to fire, police and other critical services. He also suggested that the city could consider letting voters cast ballots on a utility levy to cover the projects.

Dressel suggested Lewis develop a proposal for a single-year rate increase instead of multiple years.

“I think telling everyone the minimum bill will be $97.82 is not going to fly,” he said.

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella said everyone doesn’t pay the minimum bill, so clear figures are needed for paying the additional per 1,000 gallon costs.

Dressel asked Lewis for the second week in a row to come up with a plan with a smaller cushion in the water and sewer accounts for contingencies.

Council will discuss the utilities again at 6 p.m. Tuesday.