St. C. presentation on water privatization

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — As city leaders consider privatization of the aging water and wastewater system, they sought input from the residents and to better present the state of infrastructure and the options in a series of informational presentations Thursday at the recreation center.

Guests heard from Aqua Ohio, the private, state-regulated entity that has offered to take over the city’s water systems.

The presentation included slides of the water treatment plant, constructed in 1929, as well as a corroded segment of four-inch pipe dating from 1950s or 1960s, which has since constricted to three inches due to interior accretion. St. Clairsville Safety and Service Director Jim Zucal said the pipe segment was removed in the fall.

“That’s what we drink out of,” Karen Donathan, resident of Bellview Street, said.

St. Clairsville Council President Tim Porter said they made the presentation to groups of eight to a dozen guests.

“We’re doing a slide presentation, then question-and-answer,” he said, adding that they are mainly answering questions about how the rates would change and what improvements a private entity would undertake. Porter pointed out that the rates will remain set until 2022.

“Those will not change, even if we do this. Then obviously in 2023, the city and council would negotiate with the operator or whoever the purchaser is. They can’t just come in and say ‘we’re going to charge you this much.'”

Tony Mancari, director of municipal services with Aqua Ohio shared his company’s findings. Also from Aqua Ohio was Tom Schwing, director of compliance for their systems in Ohio.

“We’re here to answer questions that the public may have. We know this is, for some people, a different way of running and operating a utility,” Mancari said. “I’m here to address what, in the long term, partnering with Aqua would look like.”

Mancari said the municipalities Aqua Ohio works with usually see a rate increase of about three to four percent yearly. He said that would likely be the case with St. Clairsville beginning in 2023, if the city partners with them.

“Rates are tied to the amount of investment that needs to be done,” Mancari said, adding that this will be the case no matter what course the city chooses. “There’s a significant amount of work that needs to happen, and rates are going to have to continue to go up.”

He added that Aqua Ohio serves more than 150,000 homes and businesses in Ohio.

“Every year in Ohio, we put in between $40 million and $50 million throughout our utilities throughout the state,” he said. “We try to address the issues bit by bit. Ohio as a state is facing over a $40 billion water and sewer and infrastructure need over the next 20 years, and many communities, St. Clairsville’s not the only one (to) have fallen behind in their level of investment. Communities have got to catch up, and that means rate increases.”

Mancari said the city has produced estimates of upcoming costs, including a new water plant, for a total expense of $20 million to $25 million, but said Aqua Ohio would determine its most cost-effective course of action. He said they would begin by replacing the piping, valves and water meters, an expense of $3 million to $5 million in the first few years. They would meanwhile evaluate the water plant and decide on its future.

He said the state of the water infrastructure and the city’s potential for growth contributed to Aqua Ohio reaching out to the city with its offer of privatization.

“We think with the potential St. Clairsville has for growth, with new industry coming in, that (the water and wastewater systems are) becoming more of a burden than an opportunity (for the city),” he said. “St. Clairsville’s really poised to be in a great position to grow into the future.”

Water quality was a subject brought up by Paula Koch and Sondra Ikey, both of Reservoir Road.

“We both have the city water. We both have filters inside the house,” Koch said, adding she has noticed discoloration and an unpleasant taste to her water.

Bryan Butler and A.J. Smith, surveyor and engineer with Hull & Associates, a business with an office in St. Clairsville, and which purchases water from the city, were also present during one of the presentations. They spoke well of Aqua Ohio.

“We worked with both the city and the past, and Aqua Ohio, and we think the city’s doing the right thing,” Smith said. “Aqua’s a reputable company. We’ve worked with them in other municipalities…The city’s facilities are in need of improvements, and that’s going to cost money.”

City employees also attended a presentation, but did not comment. Porter said that should the city go the route of privatization through Aqua Ohio, the company has agreed to offer jobs to all of the current employees.