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Meander Dam safety must trump windfalls for cities



Published: Wed, April 13, 2016 @ 12:00 a.m.

Talk of a windfall cash bonanza for the cities of Youngstown and Niles from the Mahoning Valley’s largest public water authority brings to mind a time-worn cliche with timeless applications: “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

In this case, the chickens take the form of millions of dollars to the two city members of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, the public entity that operates and oversees treatment and distribution of water to about 220,000 water customers in the region.

Specifically, the water authority could be in a position to offer a rebate of up to $5 million to be split between the two cash-strapped municipalities if needed repairs to the aging Meander Dam cost less than some original estimates, according to MVSD Board Member Matthew Blair. The key words, of course, in that proposition are could and if.

Responsible public policy, however, cannot be crafted on the flimsy foundation of coulds and ifs.

That’s why we strongly urge leaders of Youngstown and particularly Niles, which is still deep in the throes of state-mandated and state-supervised fiscal emergency, not to factor any potential jackpot dollars from any phantom MVSD rebate into their budgets for the foreseeable future.

Even more importantly, the potential for givebacks should play no role in decision-making on the scope of repairs to the vintage 84-year-old Meander Dam. No corners should be cut to safeguard maximum security for the reputable water district and the hundreds of thousands who depend on it.

‘HIGH HAZARD’ DAM

The federal government lists the dam as “high hazard” – not because of any flaws in the structure that undergoes daily safety inspections. It is so listed because of the likely massive loss of human life that could occur should it ever face a catastrophic collapse. That’s why the dam is mandated to “safely pass 100 percent of the probable maximum flood” level, which translates into nearly 20 inches of rainfall within 24 hours, according to the MVSD’s engineering consulting firm.

An engineering report is expected to be released in July on needed repair work for the dam, which protects the 7-mile-long Meander Reservoir. That report should offer guidance on the extent of repairs needed and the timeline in which the work can be completed. Are the necessary repairs relatively minimal that can be spread out over several years and thereby lessen annual costs? Or are they so numerous and so critical that a massive and rapid infusion of capital will be needed?

Early signs do not look too promising for delivery of any cash-cow rebates. As Blair put it recently: “... We’re looking at what could be major repairs. If the repairs have to be done [immediately], there will be no rebates.”

In addition, if some funding remains, the MVSD might also consider the need to ensure its own finances are sufficiently shored up. After all, declining population and losses of major water-consuming industries in the Mahoning Valley over the past five years have precipitated a 16 percent drop – from 25 million gallons to 21 million gallons – in daily consumption of MVSD water. Those losses clearly would leave their mark on the water authority’s bottom line.

In Youngstown, city Water Commissioner Harry Johnson III is to be commended for neither counting on nor planning uses for a windfall of perhaps $3.75 million. Johnson says he is more concerned about the status of the dam and the future of MVSD finances than about any possible rebate, which would be a first in the nine-decade history of the water authority. Johnson clearly has gotten his priorities straight.

Some members of Niles city government and council should do likewise. Niles Mayor Thomas Scarnecchia acted prematurely and with a lack of responsible foresight in spilling the beans to the public about the potential rebate last week. Scarnecchia would like to use the funds toward repair and replacement of dozens of fire hydrants in the city.

In a financially challenged city suffering fallout from a lack of fiscal foresight and attention to details in the previous Niles city administration, its water department and its residents should not be set up for dashed hopes.

Instead, all attention among leaders and residents of Niles and other communities served by the MVSD must be squarely focused on ensuring the water system remains world-class. City coffers should never be enriched at the expense of the health of water consumers.

To resurrect yet another time-worn but timeless cliche that fits this scenario well, safety must come first.


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