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St.C. holds first water sale reading

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Mayoral candidate Bill Brooks voices objections to water privatization Monday during the first reading by St. Clairsville’s city council of the proposed contract. Brooks was later escorted out of the meeting after repeatedly speaking against the potential buyer, Aqua Ohio.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Accusations and arguments marked the first of three readings of the contracts between the city and Aqua Ohio, a private, state-regulated entity, for the proposed purchase of St. Clairsville’s aging water and wastewater system.

Council will not vote on privatization in the next six weeks, but Councilwoman Beth Oprisch and Councilman Perry Basile objected to the motion being read at all at this time, saying council members have only recently received the contracts and have not had time to thoroughly read them. Law Director Richard Myser said this was permissible under the city laws, and that council members would have time to review the contract thoroughly before

voting.

Audience members in packed council chamber were told that the public could submit a request for a copy of the contract in physical or electronic form. Physical copies are offered at a cost per page.

The council also held the second reading or an ordinance calling for a delay to the privatization readings in order to arrange an independent study to look into options to repair the system, seek funding, and retain local control.

Oprisch, who had championed this proposal, moved that it be passed immediately, as she had last meeting. Once again, this was defeated, with council members Mark Bukmir, Linda Jordan, Jim Velas and Frank Sabatino voting against, and Oprisch, Basile, and Mike Smith voting in favor.

The ordinance will have it’s third and final reading and vote next regular meeting.

Council President Tim Porter was absent. Councilman Frank Sabatino directed the meeting as president pro tempore.

There will be a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 16, where representatives of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency — including Craig Butler, chief of the Ohio EPA for the Southeast District — will meet in executive session with council. However, residents with questions are asked to submit those questions to their council members so they may ask the EPA.

Also, the attorney representing St. Clairsville during the negotiations with Aqua Ohio will attend the regular 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 meeting. The meeting will be public and residents are again asked to submit their questions to their council members. Pugh said all questions for the attorney will be posed by council members.

Zucal also updated council on the state of the county’s water supply. He said recent heavy rainfall has offset the dry months, although residents are still asked to conserve water.

The reservoir water level, which had decreased by almost half, was increased by nine to 10 inches, and the city was no longer purchasing Belmont County water as of Saturday.

He added that as of August about nine million gallons of water were lost due to leaks in the system, meaning more water was lost than was delivered to residents. Regarding the EPA mandate to hire a Class 3 water operator, St. Clairsville is allowed to hire multiple operators for a total of 40 hours a week, rather than requiring a full-time employee.

Zucal also voiced doubts about the viability of continued local control, saying it would mean seeking loans in the millions, doubting the water rates, and trusting governmental entity which had neglected the system for 30 years would take action.

“I worry about major failure of the water plant and distribution center. I also worry about the possible breakdowns that demands immediate repair, and we cannot afford to fix and even Band-Aid it now. I care deeply about this community,” Mayor Terry Pugh said, adding that this has not been a rushed or hasty process and he and Zucal has brought up problems with water service since 2016.

“To those of you who think we rushed to this point, I’m glad you’ve finally paid attention.”

Pugh said the opposition was delaying and putting off the need to take action. He said Aqua Ohio would not purchase the land or reservoirs, only the plant, distribution system and hydrants, and that the rates under Aqua Ohio would increase by dollars through 2026, and the city or the Public Utility Commission of Ohio could negotiate with Aqua Ohio when the company sought rate increases afterwards.

Exchanges between Pugh, Oprisch and Basile continued, with Basile saying there are still unanswered questions and contradictory information from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership when Julie Ward, a regional development specialist, spoke to council several meetings prior and said lower-interest loans were available.

“It’s not that we’re trying to halt or stall this after 30 years of neglect, we need to look at that other explanation, and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t believe we have those numbers,” Basile said. “We haven’t done our due diligence as a city. We haven’t looked at an alternative.”

Sabatino told Basile he was repeating prior arguments without making a point. Basile objected that Sabatino should not restrict the questions a council member may ask.

“We were given this five days ago,” Oprisch said, indicating the contract. “We should be given the time to look through this.”

Oprisch also brought up an e-mail she said Pugh sent to Ward, asking for her correspondence with council members and others. Pugh said he sought this information because he felt Ward’s presentation was contrived. He also said communicated with an RCAP funding coordinator who told him the city rates would need to be doubled at least in order to seek out loans.

Several residents also spoke, as did mayoral candidates Bill Brooks and Kathryn Thalman also spoke. Thalman asked the four council members for their reasoning. Brooks objected to privatization. Later in the meeting, Brooks repeatedly objected to Pugh’s positive portrayal of Aqua Ohio and Sabatino had him escorted out of the meeting.

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