Columbus utility rate hike coming

Take a nice long shower while you can, because higher utility rates are likely on the way. Columbus City Council is planning to raise water and sewer rates in 2009 to meet expenses.   

Tatyana Arsh, director of the Columbus Department of Public Utilities, explained that they need the revenue for operation and maintenance expenses, as well as for expensive upgrades to bring the utility system up to the required standards. 
She said the cost of running water treatment plants has gone up since last year because of rising electricity and fuel prices.  In addition, the fuel budget for machinery and vehicles is slated to go up 35 percent in 2009. 

The combined total increase in storm water fees and water and sewer rates would be 7.1 percent, beginning in January of 2009. 

That would average out to about a $15 monthly increase in residential bills. The average utility bill for city residents is currently $195 and would increase to $209.  The average suburban bill is $211 and can be expected to increase to $226. 

Arsh gave statistics comparing Columbus’ rates to other local communities. Cincinnati has lower rates, and Cleveland has higher.  The exception is the price of water, which is higher in Columbus than in either of the other two cities. 

An exception to the price hike would be the Low Income Discount Program.
Arsh estimated that those who qualify as low income customers would actually see their average bill decrease by about 2 percent. To qualify, residents need to be eligible for income assistance programs like food stamps, Ohio Medicaid, or public housing benefits, among others.  

Resident Michael Davala had strong words about the rate increases at the council’s public hearing, held on Nov. 11.

He referred to a lawsuit by the Sierra Club that helped lead to the city’s agreement with the EPA to upgrade their systems. 

"In talking about all these programs, how much have they (the Sierra Club) contributed to this cost that the taxpayers have to pay?" he asked.  "I think if they’re going to force this on everybody else, they can walk the talk, put their money where their mouth is." 

Davala also seemed unhappy about the way the city handles bond issues.  "I saw a presentation that the city was going to borrow half a billion dollars for sewer improvements, and you guys said it wasn’t going to cost a tax increase. And next council meeting, you raised the rates to pay for the bond. So how can we believe you on anything?" he asked. 

Council Member Andrew Ginther said rate increases are not the same as tax increases, although people tend to confuse them. People would also have had to pay to cover city expenses somehow, with or without the passage of bond issues. Passage of the bond issues allowed the city borrow money at a lower rate, saving the citizens money, he said.

"In essence, by folks passing the bond package, which didn’t raise taxes by voting for it, it helps keep our rate increases as low as possible and also makes sure that the users of the utility system are paying for it, as opposed to just anybody and everybody," said Ginther.

"We’re keeping rate increases as low as possible," he added. 

A good part of the money borrowed through the bond package goes to bring the utilities up to the EPA’s standards, he said. 

"When voters give the city the authority to borrow money to do this, we have to pay it off," said Rick Tilton, assistant director for Policy and Communications. "The means we pay it off by is through these rates. And by passing the bond package, you are borrowing at a lower interest rate…we’re saving about $28 million for taxpayers and rate payers."

Also, he said, people tend to forget that when they pay their water and sewer bill they are paying for improvements.  "You’re talking about improving the quality of life…it’s invested in neighborhoods and water and sewer projects."

Other residents at the meeting, most representing groups like Friends of Alum Creek and the Sierra Club, were supportive of the council’s efforts to make the utilities more environmentally friendly.

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