GAO issues water, sewer findings

By Peter H. Milliken


None of the six federal programs designed to assist communities with water and wastewater system improvements is specifically designed to help cities with declining populations pay for these improvements, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded in a study released this week.

The six federal-assistance programs GAO reviewed are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, Economic Development Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“None of these programs are particularly effective in helping cities like Youngstown with their water and sewer issues,” said Youngstown Mayor John A. McNally.

“We need some federal and state assistance with grant monies,” the mayor added.

The GAO study team visited Youngstown and five other cities that experienced double-digit population losses between 1980 and 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

Despite the economic challenges faced by their residents, the cities studied raised user rates to pay for improvements.

Youngstown’s sewer rates are rising 4 percent annually through 2018.

Any future rate increases are “to be determined,” the mayor said.

“Simply doing rate hikes in cities like ours with declining populations and declining tax bases is not a fair way to do it,” he added.

“We already have a very high burden on our ratepayers, and it’s our desire not to have further increases,” Youngstown Law Director Martin Hume said.

“If you spread the cost over fewer people, each person has to pay more, and that’s a problem that the city, itself, has no solution for. So it seems to be an appropriate place for federal government action,” Hume added.

“Grant programs are always the most beneficial because you don’t have to pay them back, so they’re monies that you don’t have to take from your taxpayers or your ratepayers,” Hume said.

“Youngstown had the longest EPA-approved implementation schedule at 31 years” for the $146 million in sewer system upgrades the EPA requires by 2033 for compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, GAO reported.

That’s because of the financial burden these improvements pose for impoverished local residents, GAO said.

Among the cities the GAO study team visited, Youngstown had the lowest annual per-capita income at $14,742.

Youngstown’s low-income households are paying more than 8 percent of their incomes in combined water and wastewater bills, with any percentage over 4.5 considered unaffordable, GAO said.

Youngstown’s population drop from 115,436 in 1980 to 66,982 in 2010 represented a 42 percent decline, second only to the 47.2 percent drop in Gary, Ind., which the GAO team also visited.

The study concerned how communities with declining populations manage and finance their water supply and sewer infrastructure needs and the extent to which they get federal support for those efforts.

It was requested by U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., the ranking minority member of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A group from the nonpartisan GAO’s natural resources and environment team visited Youngstown for a day and a half in September 2015 to gather information for the study.

The team met with city officials, toured the city’s wastewater treatment plant and viewed some combined storm and sanitary sewer overflows (CSOs) in Mill Creek Park.

Youngstown’s $146 million agreement with the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection agencies requires it to improve its wastewater system and curtail many CSOs that discharge a mixture of stormwater and sewage after heavy rains.

The Ohio EPA said city CSO discharges after heavy rains in late June 2015 were the primary cause of a massive fish kill in Mill Creek Park’s Lake Newport.

The fish kill was followed by Mahoning County District Board of Health findings of elevated E. coli bacteria levels in Lake Newport, which triggered the closing of park lakes to all recreational activities July 10 of that year.

The lakes reopened to boating and fishing this year with warning signs at boat docks and launches saying elevated E. coli levels may exist in the water 24 to 96 hours after it rains.

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