By David Skolnick
Sewer rates in Youngstown, which city officials acknowledge are already high, are expected to increase by 17 percent over the next four years to help fund $146 million in improvements to its waste- water treatment system as mandated by a federal agency.
City council will meet at 4:30 p.m. Monday with the administration to discuss the latter’s proposal to raise sewer rates by 3.99 percent annually for four years starting Jan. 1. An ordinance to approve the recommended rate hike will be on council’s Dec. 1 meeting agenda.
The proposal would see the monthly sewer rate of $84.55 per 1,000 cubic feet jump to $98.87 by Jan. 1, 2018, with annual increases of 3.99 percent for the city’s 22,000 wastewater customers.
The rate increase is needed to help pay for $146 million in improvements to the city’s wastewater system as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said city Law Director Martin Hume and Finance Director David Bozanich.
The improvements include $36 million in upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, $62 million for a new wet-weather facility near the plant to better control sewage in heavier rainfalls, and a $48 million interceptor to keep wastewater from flowing into Mill Creek MetroParks.
The work would take 20 years to complete, Hume said.
Additional rate increases after 2018 are likely.
The EPA originally ordered the city in 2002 to spend $310 million on improvements to its wastewater system. Because of the high cost, the city entered into negotiations with the EPA from 2003 to 2011 to lower that figure, Hume said.
During that time, the city made about $5 million worth of improvements to its wastewater system, Hume said.
On April 12, 2011, the city received a letter from the EPA acknowledging it wouldn’t seek the $310 million in improvements because of the strain it would put on city residents.
“The bone of contention with the EPA has been the expense,” Hume said. “We have a high poverty rate and our wastewater rates are higher than other places with high poverty rates.”
The U.S. census lists Youngstown as having the sixth-highest poverty rate among cities in the nation. Among the top nine, its monthly sewer rate of $84.55 per 1,000 cubic feet is by far the highest.
“The concern we have is the cost of wastewater is high as far as a percentage of the household income in the city,” Bozanich said. “We don’t want to put any more of a burden on our rate payers. They’re already paying more than their fair share.”
During discussions over the past 2 1/2 years, the city and the EPA settled on the $146 million amount over a 20-year period.
The plan needs approval from city council, the federal EPA and the Ohio EPA.
While the 17 percent increase over four years is high, it’s small compared with the 60 percent increase over the past five years — 9.8 percent annually — that saw the monthly sewer rate go from $52.98 per 1,000 cubic feet on Dec. 31, 2009, to $84.55 now.
The city has a $9 million surplus in its wastewater fund from that rate hike, Bozanich said.
“We have built up that fund over the years to make it easier to help pay for what the EPA mandated,” said Charles Shasho, deputy director of the city’s public works department. “Now we have a head start and we’re able to minimize the impact.”
The city also increased its sewer fees by 40 percent between Oct. 1, 2002 and Jan. 1, 2006 — with annual increases ranging from 7 percent to 13 percent.
Even with a sewer-rate freeze between Jan. 2, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2009, users will see their monthly wastewater cost per 1,000 cubic feet go from $37.92 on Oct. 1, 2002, to $98.87 by Jan. 1, 2018, an increase of more than 260 percent.