As Columbus residential water and sewer rates rise, city officials are being warned that this tide is not likely to recede any time soon.
"This will not be the end of double-digit rate increases," stated Auditor Hugh Dorrian Nov. 26, before City Council unanimously passed legislation that will raise the average bill 12.5 percent for residents and 13.5 percent for suburban customers starting Jan. 1.
That will translate to a $22 hike per quarter for Columbus residents, according to Tatyana Arsh, director of the Department of Public Utilities.
While water and sewer services will cost more, the increases will result in "substantial benefits," Arsh added.
The city is embarking on a $1.3 billion project over the next five years to expand reservoirs and pipelines delivering water, and to add waste water treatment facilities to reduce overflow into rivers and back-ups into basements, Arsh said.
The problem, she explained, is that the state and federal governments are not providing the funds once available for such projects, even while they mandate upgrades.
In 2001, Columbus would have been eligible for up to $100 million in low-interest loans for infrastructure improvements, but today could receive a maximum of $35 million, Arsh said.
Columbus, along with other cities, is under a mandate from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to make the improvements within 20 years, while Arsh believes 40 years would be more financially feasible for the city.
"The Ohio EPA doesn’t care if it costs a dime or a dollar, they want it done by a date specific," Council President Michael Mentel observed, showing "complete disregard for our financial situation."
Columbus is attempting to negotiate on the timeline with the EPA, but Arsh is not optimistic that a settlement can be reached.
City representatives sent a 100-page economic feasibility study to the Ohio EPA and received back a two or three-page reply that Arsh said was full of "discrepancies and inconsistencies."
Columbus is not alone in trying to pay for unfunded mandates. Arsh said that there will be an estimated $500 billion funding gap nationwide for water and sewer improvements over the next 20 years.
A resolution is pending in Congress urging more funding for these projects, and Councilman Kevin Boyce said he would sponsor a resolution supporting that effort.
"We need more assistance in getting our tax dollars back," agreed Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy.
Boyce pointed out that reducing the amount of waste water overflow going into the Scioto River will aid with the $30 million investment along the riverfront.
To ease the burden on low-income residents, Arsh said her department has been trying to get the word out about its 15 percent discount program for those with incomes 150 percent above the poverty line.
There are about 3,000 customers receiving discounts, and the department hopes to raise that to 5,000 by 2009.
A radio ad campaign conducted between Nov. 4 and 23 netted 432 calls, Arsh said. More written notices and door-to-door contacts are also being made. Information is also available on the department’s web site and on the 3-1-1 help line.
Landlords with at least 80 percent of tenants receiving subsidized housing are also eligible for a discount, but so far only three have applied and one was accepted, Arsh said.
Patricia Marida, representing the Columbus chapter of the Sierra Club, conceded that the improvements were needed to improve public health and protect the environment.
But she also questioned why industrial and commercial customers were not subject to the same types of increases as residential users.
"Unless there is a compelling reason, it would be fairer to raise all the rates the same," Marida said.
Boyce assured residents that council does not take such rate increases lightly. "It’s one of the toughest things we do."