By Amanda Ensinger
Local officials continue to voice frustration over water rate increases as residents contact them voicing concerns about how they are going to pay their bills.
At a recent Prairie Township meeting, board chairwoman Cathy Schmelzer addressed the matter.
“Over this past week, I have heard from any number of Prairie Township residents who have expressed their anger and frustration about the Franklin County Department of Sanitary Engineering’s anticipated rate increase for water and sewer service,” she said. “I am frustrated that this increase comes without input from residents or township elected officials. Times are tough right now for many in the township. The last thing residents need is for another increase in the already high cost of utility services. I want the residents to know that I share in your anger and frustration. I have the honor of serving as an elected official in Prairie Township, but I am also a township resident and when the township gets hit with these increases, I also get hit.”
At the start of 2021, residents saw a 2 percent increase for water service and a 3 percent increase for sewer service, according to Franklin County Department of Sanitary Engineers Director Stephen Renner. The reason for the increase is attributed to increases the county received from Columbus. According to Renner, they are simply passing these increases along to customers.
However, this rate increase is causing major concern for Prairie Township residents who already say they pay some of the highest rates in the county.
“I want to undeniably state that the township has absolutely no authority to dictate what the county does; how it operates its system; what rates the county charges; or how the county moves forward,” Schmelzer said. “Even though the township has no control over the county’s system, for over a decade, the township has consistently worked on behalf of its residents to attempt to find solutions to address the ever-increasing water and sewer rates set by the county. The township continues to remain committed to doing whatever it can to assist the county and its representatives in accomplishing our mutual goal of reducing rates for residents.”
According to township leadership, a family of four pays anywhere between $500 to $800 a quarter for water and sewer service. They also said that if someone uses no water, they will still pay $110 just in connection fees. If they had water from Columbus, this fee would be around $30. Neighboring communities who get their water from Columbus pay about half of what township residents pay.
Renner said there are a variety of reasons why Franklin County’s water and sewer service are more expensive than Columbus.
“There are 26 noncontiguous service areas in the county that Franklin County provides water for,” Renner said. “We have an aging system and a fleet of service trucks that have to service these areas on any given day, these all contribute to these costs.”
“Rates are high because the county system is outdated, mismanaged, in debt, and with a relatively small customer base to pay for necessary costs,” Schmelzer said. “The county has offered these same explanations week after week, month after month, and year after year.”
Renner said the county is looking at having Columbus take over these services to reduce residents’ rates but says the coronavirus pandemic has slowed this process down.
However, the trustees argue that this has been an issue for 10 years and blaming the delay on the pandemic will not cut it.
“The outrageous increases in the cost of utility services are not sustainable for residents,” Schmelzer said. “It is shameful that a utility bill for a two-person household should be as much as a car or mortgage payment. I plan on contacting the Franklin County Commissioners and Department of Sanitary Engineering to convey the urgency of this situation, and demand progress. I would be happy to sit down with any county commissioner or official at any time so that we can work as a team to keep residents updated on the county’s progress. I encourage every resident of Prairie Township to also reach out to and follow up with the county. The county deserves to hear what these increases mean to those who will be responsible for paying it and provide updates to its constituents.”
Renner said when the city does take over the systems, they will only accept homes who are already directly connected to them. Previously the county thought the city would accept all homes.
While no timetable has been determined, Renner said they already have another meeting with the city planned and are making progress. However, until an agreement is made, residents will continue to pay high water and sewer bills and should anticipate continued rate increases.
The county does offer financial assistance for water and sewer bills for those in need. For more information on financial assistance options, visit cleanwater.franklincountyohio.gov.