LORAIN — Proposed sewer rate increases won’t be as steep as city officials initially anticipated after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency paused one of the city’s required projects.
Safety-Service Director Dan Given said the EPA is allowing the city to temporarily forgo overhauling the sanitary sewer overflow system, which would have cost $5 million in 2017.
“Essentially, what was needed to finalize the project wasn’t complete yet,” Given said about the overflow system, which is used when the sewer system is at capacity and is then drained into the Black River and Lake Erie. “We have to give them two to four alternatives, and they pick from those. We haven’t been given final approval yet, but they felt our progress was sufficient enough to table it for the time being.”
Given said that’s not to say the project won’t be added back onto the city’s to-do list, but by putting it off indefinitely, the city can increase monthly bills by $5 instead of the initially proposed $13 because the city won’t need as much money right away.
The EPA sent the city a consent decree in 2014 that stated that in 2017 alone, Lorain would have to spend $4 million on cleaning, lining and inspecting sewers, $4.3 million on paying off the tunnel project, $870,000 on updating treatment plants throughout the city and $5 million to shut down sanitary sewer overflows.
“The leadership team we’ve been working with at the EPA has been really understanding of the situation we’re in,” Given said. “We told them we were getting pushback from residents and Council about having to increase rates to fund the projects, and their attitude was that they could work with us on it because we’ve been working with them.”
Given said while there is conversation at the national level to cut EPA regulations and red tape, he isn’t sure that holds any bearing in this instance.
“It’s not really about who’s in charge as long as we continue to be open with them about our situation,” he said.
The possibility of rate increases was introduced in September by engineering firm CT Consultants and its senior projects manager Bob McNutt, who said 20 years of deferred maintenance in Lorain’s water and sewer lines would cost a total of $170 million to fix now.
With the EPA placing an indefinite hold on the sanitary sewer overflow system project, that total decreases to $165 million.
After the city administration introduced the initial sewer rate increase, which would see monthly bills increasing about $13 every year, concerns from Council about the rising cost of city services caused the body to send the legislation back to committee.
The city also raised the water rates by about $9 a year this year.
Councilman Joe Faga, D-7th Ward, who chairs the Streets and Utilities Committee, said he hopes to have a vote on the rate increase no later than May.
“I think the temporary delay is a great opportunity to spread the projects out over time and to alleviate the burden on the taxpayers,” he said. “Overall, I think it’s a great change.”
Mary Springowski, D-at large, has expressed wariness toward the rate increases and said if it can be guaranteed that the money coming from the proposed hikes will go to capital improvements, she can support the rate structure.
“I just don’t want to see the money go toward salaries and hiring new people into the Utilities Department,” she said. “Personally, I don’t agree with the fact that we have a readiness-to-serve charge at all because I don’t think there should be a flat rate just to get service, but I think if it goes toward replacing water and sewer lines and the plants, then it’s something I could support.”
Mayor Chase Ritenauer said the infrastructure improvements will still be significant and this is a step in the right direction for the city.
“We want to continue to stay in compliance with the EPA’s consent order, but I think this is going to do it in a way that’s least impactful for residents,” he said. “I wanted to see rate increases come about in smaller amounts or incrementally, and I think that’s what this is.”