City sets meeting on utility hike

STEUBENVILLE — After months of City Council meetings concerning water and sewer rate hikes, city residents will have a chance to offer input on the proposed increases during two public meetings next week.

The meetings will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the commons area of Steubenville High School and at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Eastern Gateway Community College.

Council could take legislative action on the increases at the Oct. 23 meeting.

The city is faced with the need to make millions of dollars in repairs to water and sewer infrastructure.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is mandating or requiring most of the work.

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn made a proposal, which council approved Tuesday, to raise water and sewer rates by 15 percent.

She also proposed increasing the water infrastructure part of the bill by $3.10 and creating a sewer infrastructure amount of $7. Hahn said the overall increase to residents will be 24 percent.

Residents pay a utility bill for water, sewer and garbage collection.

The base bill for a resident using 2,000 gallons or less of water is $68.82. The rate will increase to $85.59.

Hahn also proposed annual future increases every year through October 2022, when the base bill for 2,000 gallons of water will reach $101.03.

“We are facing millions of dollars in critical water and wastewater improvements, but we will still have a shortfall in spending,” she said.

She noted the city can’t put all the money in infrastructure improvements because the accounts will still have a deficit in spending.

Hahn said there has been a decrease in the number of customers in the city’s water and sewer system.

“Expenses are going to continue increasing,” she said.

City Manager James Mavromatis said council was told in 2013 an increase in rates was needed, but took no action. After the downtown area was left without water for days in January, the Ohio EPA was forced to step in and mandate improvements. The agency also said work needs to be done at the sewage treatment plant.

Arcadis, the city’s water system consultants that have been working on a state-required asset management plan, and the city’s finance and utilities departments had recommended a 30 percent increase, something council wasn’t ready to accept. Council members said it would present a hardship to low-income residents.

The city must complete a critical valve replacement program to start next year under a $7 million state loan, with $3.5 million to be forgiven from the principle repayment.

The city also has other major water and sewer projects it must complete, including a critical refurbishing of the West End water tower, a sewer plan upgrade and refurbishing, scheduled maintenance to the other two city water towers and work on separating sanitary and stormwater in the sewer system. The total bill in today’s dollars is estimated at about $29 million.

Tom Hartwig of Arcadis told council Tuesday that Hahn’s rate increase proposal will generate enough funding to cover the needs of the next four to six years. He said the funds could need further adjustment at that time, with the capital projects on the horizon.

Council has been pushing for more grants and low-interest loans for the needed water and sewer improvements.

Hahn, city Finance Director Dave Lewis, city Utilities Director Chuck Murphy and two engineering consultants for water and sewer improvements were in Columbus on Friday to meet with funding agencies.

Hahn said she doesn’t want to overwhelm people with facts and figures at the public meetings next week.

“We have to explain ourselves,” she said. “People have to understand (that council) studied this for months. We did not just whimsically come up with these figures.”

With all the discussion on water and sewer rates, council has not made a decision on the sanitation fund, which also will go into deficit spending. Lewis said the fund will overspend by about $800,000 in the near future.

Council members said the city might have to cut back on needed purchases of new garbage packers, several of which are nearing the end of their useful life.

Sanitation Superintendent Bob Baird said the city can’t finance the purchase of new garbage trucks with the projected deficits in the fund.

Mayor Jerry Barilla said residents at the public meetings will be told about the need for the increase to the water and sewer bills. He noted the city is under a consent decree with the Ohio EPA for the sewer department and must make improvements to the water system, including the installation of valves, which will allow workers to isolate sections of the system in the event of major water line breaks.

He added the water and sewer systems have been neglected for years.

“The EPA has put pressure on the city to make improvements and to make sure we can fund them,” the mayor said. “The only way to make the improvements is to have the rate hikes. The public needs to be made aware of what is happening. If they have any questions, they can ask council and the administration.”