Water debate back on table
ST. CLAIRSVILLE – After some delays, city leaders have resumed debate about the future of water and wastewater service.
The novel coronavirus and its impact on public gatherings caused several prior meetings to be postponed and made it unfeasible for council to meet in person, so members and Mayor Kathryn Thalman held a teleconference Monday and heard from representatives of Aqua Ohio, the private, state-regulated entity that expressed interest in purchasing the city’s water and wastewater systems. They also heard from engineer Jeff Vaughn, who was contracted to study the systems and present options to meet Ohio Environmental Protection Agency mandates while maintaining local control.
The debate about whether to privatize has been contentious among residents and council members, and was the chief point of contention during the 2019 mayoral election. Thalman ran on a platform of exploring options to maintain local ownership.
Council President Jim Velas ran the meeting from council chambers, with Law Director Elizabeth Glick on hand. The public was able to dial in to the teleconference and listen.
“This is an experiment for us, based on the conditions we’re having to deal with right now,” Velas said. “The business of government must continue.”
Council heard from Ed Kolodziej, president and chief operations officer of Aqua Ohio, and Tony Mancari, director of municipal services. They reviewed the timeline of Aqua Ohio’s negotiations with the city, beginning with the initial contact in late 2017 through the proposed contract in 2019, when council was unable to vote on the eve of the mayoral election due to lack of a quorum.
They emphasized Aqua Ohio’s resources and expertise, its intent to invest in the processing plants and the distribution system, and the agreement to maintain existing customer rates until 2023 for water with moderate rate increases afterward, and no increases through 2025 for sewer services.
Aqua Ohio gave the new administration until April to accept or reject its proposal. In recognition of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this has been extended to
As many as 30 people were listening in, not counting council and city employees, but the number dropped off as the meeting continued. After more than three hours, there were about 10 listeners remaining.
Velas said city officials considered a town hall meeting to further discuss options, but the pandemic has stymied such plans.
“We are still looking into finding a way to somehow see if we can address a town hall meeting to get some input from the citizens,” he said.
The next council meeting is set for 7:30 p.m. Monday at the municipal building.