MAHONING, SHENANGO VALLEYS Low water rates: Often, it's only a pipe dream

It's just water, but where you get it could mean all the difference in price.
Rates from private water companies are the highest in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, and communities with their own water supplies are usually able to charge customers lower rates.
Residential customers in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys use a monthly average of 4,500 gallons of water to cook, clean, drink and more. Depending on where you live and who supplies the water, you could be paying a premium price.
A comparison of water suppliers and their rates by The Vindicator shows customers in portions of Trumbull and Mahoning counties served by Consumers Ohio Water Co. and those in Mercer and Lawrence counties served by Pennsylvania American Water are footing the highest bills.
Waterline project
A $2.5 million waterline project could be the key for some of those Trumbull County water customers to start paying less than the $31.50 many average in a month for up to 5,000 gallons of water.
The Trumbull County rates are still cheaper than those paid by customers of Pennsylvania American Water in Mercer and Lawrence counties, which average $37.88 each month.
Compare those costs with Columbiana, where the village runs its own water operation and customers pay $9.19 each month for the same amount of water. Columbiana residents see some of the cheapest rates in the valleys.
Officials from the private companies say there are some simple reasons for the higher bills.
Deferring maintenance
"Generally the local authorities have a habit of deferring maintenance to save costs," said Marianne Kelly, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania American Water, which serves customers in New Castle, Ellwood City and Union, Mahoning, Shenango, Hickory and several other townships in Pennsylvania.
"We've had increases just about every two years," Kelley said. "It is because of the amount of work we do in our system. We have a very aggressive schedule for maintaining our system."
Kelly said companies such as Pennsylvania American Water have miles upon miles of pipes to maintain, and some of the costs associated with maintenance are reflected in the rates they charge.
She noted that the increases are a way for the company to recoup money it has invested in the system.
"We are not going to delay these projects," she said. "We know from year to year what kind of work we are going to do, what facilities are going to be upgraded and the cost. We go forward with the projects."
Although a little higher than others, the rates charged by Pennsylvania American Water are mostly comparable to those charged by other private water companies.
Other companies
Aqua Pennsylvania Inc., the former Consumers Pennsylvania Water Co., supplies water to 19,366 metered customers in Mercer and Lawrence counties, including Sharon, Hermitage, Farrell, Mercer and New Wilmington. Customers there see monthly bills of $26.35 for 5,000 gallons of water.
Consumers Ohio Water Co. serves customers in Struthers, Lowellville, Coitsville and portions of Poland Township, Poland Village, Boardman Township and Springfield Township in Mahoning County, as well as several communities in Trumbull County.
In communities such as Struthers, customers are charged $27.45 each month for up to 5,000 gallons of water.
In Trumbull County, the Four Township Water District -- which comprises portions of Hubbard, Liberty, Brookfield and Vienna townships -- is also supplied by Consumers. But customers there see higher bills, because the water is bought in bulk by the county and then resold to customers for a slight profit.
Thomas Holloway, county sanitary engineer, said another reason for the rate differences is that, as a private company, Consumers can establish different rates for different customers.
"It's the same water, but we are paying a higher price than some other communities," he said.
That situation will change, he noted, because commissioners voted last year to end the 40-year relationship with the private company.
"We checked around for better rates, and Niles had the best," he said.
The county buys bulk water and then resells it to customers in the townships, but the county has paid nearly $1.2 million each year with Consumers, he said. By switching to Niles and adding the remaining residents in Hubbard and Brookfield townships, the county will see lower rates once a new main feeder line is constructed from Niles to the current feeder line on Belmont Avenue.
In Niles, which is one-half of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District along with Youngstown, the city is supplied water from the Meander Reservoir and charges customers within its city limits $11.28 monthly for 600 cubic feet of water, or 4,488 gallons. Customers outside the city limits see a 50-percent surcharge, bringing their rates up to $16.92 for the same amount of water.
It's comparable to Youngstown, where those in the city are charged $13.84 monthly for 600 cubic feet of water, and a 40-percent surcharge to customers in areas such as Austintown for a monthly rate of $19.29.
Put off pipe replacement
Youngstown had kept water rates unchanged for several years because the city declined to invest in systematic replacement of pipes, explained Charles P. Sammarone, water commissioner.
A study in the mid-1990s recommended capital improvements to the system, but the city passed at that time. Raising water rates to pay for the work isn't always a popular decision, and city officials at that time declined to implement the increase, Sammarone said.
"Eventually, that catches up with you," he said.
A performance audit in 2000 said the city was in dire need of investing in the water system. So, in 2003, the city raised the water rates for the first time in eight years, dedicating the money to fixing the water pipes that break most often, Sammarone said.
Other community-run water departments in the Mahoning Valley also charge rates lower than those seen by customers of private water companies. Girard, which buys water in bulk from the members cities of MVSD and then resells it to residents, charges $21.70 each month for 5,000 gallons.
More comparisons
In Campbell, 5,000 gallons of water each month costs customers $27.25, but Warren residents are charged $13.84 for the same amount. Customers outside the city limits who are supplied Warren water, such as Howland Township, see monthly rates of $19.29. Cortland, which maintains its own system of wells, bills quarterly, charging $7.52 per quarter for the first 4,000 gallons. The next 1,000 gallons costs an additional $1.88, said Don Wittman, city service director.
In Salem, residents are billed $12.88 for 5,000 gallons of water.
"We're able to boast a little bit about our rates," Utilities Director Don Weingart said. He noted that for a city of Salem's size -- about 12,000 people -- the rates are relatively inexpensive.

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