Opinions divided on Aqua Ohio
ST. CLAIRSVILLE — As city leaders ponder a bid from Aqua Ohio, the state-regulated private entity that has offered to purchase the city’s water and wastewater systems, The Times Leader reached out to Buckeye State communities already served by Aqua Ohio and to related agencies and individuals for their perspectives.
Mayor Scott Schertzer of Marion, Ohio, said privatization is par for the course in his community.
“We (as a city) have never run a water company in Marion. As far back as our records have been able to take us, the early 1900s, the city has never run the water company, so it’s always been a private company of some magnitude,” he said, adding that different companies operated the water system prior to Aqua Ohio’s purchase.
“Like with any public utility, you’re going to have challenges,” Schertzer said. “It is an older infrastructure. They have done a lot of updating of valves and laterals and main lines and correcting a lot of the issues from the previous Ohio America Water. So we have a good relationship as far as the city is concerned. When they have to peel open a city street to do work, which they are going to do a major project next month on one of our main thoroughfares coming off of Ohio 23, we work very well with them in coordinating those construction repair projects. They’re going to set up detours and return the road back to the state that we expect it to be in. They send in a crew and do asphalt repairs throughout the entire city,” he said.
“I don’t get calls from our citizens saying, ‘Gee, Aqua’s rates are just too expensive. I think anytime there is a rate increase, we as a municipal government do our due diligence to challenge them on those rate increases to make sure we’re getting something for those rate increases,” he said. “It’s like any utility. The cable bill goes up, people don’t like it. The gas bill goes up, the sewer bill goes up, people don’t like it. People are always going to be frustrated with public utilities when those increases occur, but the city does this process with the (Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) every time they request a rate increase.”
Schertzer also spoke highly of Aqua Ohio’s response time.
“They have enough equipment and crews in our geographic area that I don’t think we need to wait an exceedingly long time,” he said.
Bob Norris, safety and service director of Struthers, said his city also has long experience with water privatization. The utility has been under private ownership for almost 30 years, although Ohio Water Service operated it prior to Aqua Ohio.
“They’re great to deal with,” Norris said of Aqua Ohio. “As far as service and people that you want to work with, yeah, they’re great. … As you have breakage, etc., they’re quick at responding. They do a nice job. As far as any system having line repairs, it’s been implemented. The lines are in pretty good shape.”
He said Aqua Ohio goes through Struthers City Council’s public utilities committee when it wants to raise water rates. He said Aqua Ohio raised rates was last year for the first time in more than eight years. He also said Aqua Ohio only manages Struthers’ water, not its wastewater. Struthers has its own wastewater treatment plant.
Norris noted he has never received negative feedback from the public about the company.
Concerns about control and costs
The community of Cleveland Heights aggressively rejected a proposed purchase by Aqua Ohio in 2015. Assistant City Manager Susanna O’Neil said this was after 300 residents attended a public meeting and overwhelmingly voiced objections. She said the city had no prior experience with Aqua Ohio, but opposition centered on loss of local control. The city of Cleveland was equipped to provide water and was serving surrounding communities.
“Cleveland Heights has a very intelligent, vocal population. They wanted to go with Cleveland water, and that was the end of it,” she said.
J.P. Blackwood, spokesman for the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel, said his organization often deals with Aqua Ohio as the company seeks rate increases.
“Bear in mind that there typically is no free lunch in utility rate making, so Aqua’s purchase of a municipal water system will result in higher charges to its consumers. And Aqua’s future improvements to the municipal water system it buys will also result in higher charges to consumers,” Blackwood said.
He said Aqua Ohio files a rate case about every three years.
Blackwood also said Aqua uses another provision in the law to file cases, charging its customers for system improvements that Aqua invests in between rate cases.
“On the other hand, Aqua has sought and obtained a number of legislative changes that enable it to charge its consumers more for water service,” he said. “We prefer more protection in rate making law for consumers, and therefore the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel opposed a number of Aqua’s proposals that would lead to higher water bills. We have represented Ohio water consumers in the legislature and at the PUCO to recommend consumer protection from Aqua’s proposals for higher water charges.”
Brewster Martin of St. Clairsville was one of several residents and city leaders who toured other communities served by Aqua Ohio several months ago. They visited the cities of Green, Jeffersonville and Struthers and spoke to city representatives.
Martin said they heard glowing recommendations from all three communities. He said they also toured Struthers’ water treatment plant, which he said was built in 1917, making it a decade older than St. Clairsville’s 1927 plant. Ongoing renovations had the plant looking “impressive — very clean, freshly painted,” in Martin’s words. However, underground in Jeffersonville was a different story.
Martin said that work to replace waterlines had been happening for 17 years. He said Jeffersonville is about the same geographic size as St. Clairsville and presumed the communities have the same amount of waterlines to be replaced.
“If it takes us 17 years or even 10 years to get the waterlines replaced, I think that’s going to be a major problem for the city,” he said.
Martin also is concerned about where St. Clairsville repair crews would be based and if they might have to travel hours in response to a break.
Aqua Ohio’s perspective
Tony Mancori, director of municipal services with Aqua Ohio, said replacing the St. Clairsville distribution system would take years, but he said this is normal.
“Typically Aqua strives to replace at least 1 percent of the mains every year,” he said, which is the American Waterworks Association standard. “Every hundred years, you’re basically replacing your whole system. We would plan to accelerate that and hit the spots we know are problem culprits that need immediate attention. There may be initially in the first five or six years we’re replacing more than 1 percent, but it’s an ongoing process. It’s a constant process of investment and reinvestment. … They will go in and evaluate the most needy segments. They will work with the city to determine places where there are fire protection issues and lack of pressure and issues of water quality. … We want to be very prudent where we’re investing that dollar capital.”
Mancori said other utilities in Ohio have a 500- to 700-year replacement cycle.
In the event of an emergency, Mancori said, employees will be based in St. Clairsville and be able to respond immediately.
“What we’ll be able to offer is within an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes, we have three divisions that can further augment that initial effort if need be,” he said. “It’s going to be business as usual, except they’re going to have the full strength of the resources that Aqua brings.”