By Samantha Phillips
and Graig Graziosi
Liberty officials are exploring options to potentially lower water prices for residents in the northern part of the township who – for decades – have paid the highest rate of any town in their region.
Trustee Jodi Stoyak contends those residents, who are provided water service by the neighboring city of Girard, pay too much. And the water pressure is not so good either, she said.
The per-1,000-gallons rate for them is $17.35. They live generally between Girard and state Route 193. Liberty residents at Kline’s Farm, closer to Vienna Township, pay $12.33 for water service by Trumbull County. And still others in Liberty near Youngstown, serviced by the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, pay $7.89.
The northern part of the township receives water from Girard and a 40 percent surcharge for that service. Girard receives its water from the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District through the cities of Youngstown and Niles.
The rate Girard pays also has a 40 percent surcharge attached. As a result, residents of northern Liberty pay an 80 percent surcharge compared with others in the area.
The 40 percent surcharge is outlined in the contracts the municipalities agreed upon. It’s the standard surcharge, said Gary Newbrough, longtime deputy Trumbull County sanitary engineer.
The contract between Girard and Liberty, established in 1958, expires in 2020.
It allows time for the township to either continue trying to negotiate with Girard or adjust how the township provides water for its residents to get lower rates.
Girard Mayor James Melfi, however, is adamant: “We’re not going to negotiate a lower price.”
When the MVSD was formed in 1926 to provide water from Meander Creek Reservoir, Youngstown and Niles residents became charter members. Girard got free water from Liberty wells at the time.
Girard began buying Youngstown and Niles water at a surcharge after the wells were deemed to not meet federal standards, and Liberty began buying from Girard at a surcharge.
When the contract was signed, Girard made the investment for infrastructure to provide water to northern Liberty residents.
The city uses its own resources to make improvements and fix repairs in Liberty, Melfi said.
Just last month, the city approved a $242,000 waterline project on East Drive to improve water pressure in Liberty at no cost to the township.
“Now Liberty wants the best of both worlds: better service, improvements and a lower price.” Melfi said. “But, it doesn’t work that way.”
The city will continue providing improvements and services to Liberty, he said, but when Youngstown and Niles raise their water rates, Girard and Liberty residents must pay more.
“I wish I could provide water for a much cheaper price, but I cannot. I have a responsibility for the fiscal soundness of the city of Girard and its water department,” Melfi said.
For years, Stoyak and Melfi have disagreed on whether the rates are fair.
“Over the years, we’ve tried to work with Liberty, but it seems particularly with one trustee that no matter what we do, it isn’t good enough,” Melfi said.
Newbrough said he would like to have a study to determine the fair market value of Girard’s water system, and explore whether Trumbull County can purchase some of the city’s water and provide it to Liberty residents closer to the county rate, $8.22 per 1,000 gallons.
If this plan to save Liberty residents money is feasible, Newbrough suggested compensating Girard for its investment into the infrastructure by adding a capital charge, which would potentially set the water rate for northern Liberty residents in between the county rate and Girard’s rate.
Melfi said the city is open to hearing suggestions from the county and works well with the county.
Stoyak and Liberty Administrator Pat Ungaro also met with Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown last month to discuss finding a solution, but no decisions were made.
The trustees are waiting to see what the county will do before taking any action.
“If they can make it work, and we can have a fairer contract, then we are moving in the right direction,” Ungaro said.
While Liberty is weighing its options for the future of its water supply, a bill in the Ohio House could potentially solve the township’s problem.
House Bill 602, sponsored by Republican Mike Duffey of Worthington, R-21st, would effectively penalize municipalities who charge nonresident water customers more than customers within their borders.
Though the bill allows for municipalities to recoup costs associated with maintenance of their water systems, it is unclear in the bill’s language what specifically constitutes the maintenance of a water system. Municipalities in violation of the bill in its current form would face up to a 20 percent reduction of their state funding.
In the event a provider is found to be predatory in its billing of extra-municipal water customers, the state could withdraw all its funding.
The bill could force water-providing municipalities such as Youngstown and Girard to charge the same water rates to their customers in Canfield and Liberty, respectively, that they would their own residents.
In addition to raising the water rates on poorer city residents for the benefit of wealthier suburbanites – in the above example, both Canfield and Liberty have higher per capita income and median household income than their respective water providers – the bill would also undermine a major revenue source for the host municipalities while they maintain the same amount of risk and responsibility for maintaining the lines.
Mayors and administrators in water-providing municipalities throughout the state have recoiled at the bill.
The mayors of Cleveland and Akron sent letters to members of the Ohio Senate in June warning them of the bill’s possible implications for their cities and asked them to oppose it.
Even smaller communities that provide water, such as Avon Lake, have expressed their distress at the prospect of the bill’s passage.
State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, said the bill is an outgrowth of the state’s funding policies.
“I’m not a big fan of taking away local government funds from municipalities that have already been slashed drastically in the last decade,” Schiavoni said. “It’s a symptom of the state starving the local governments.”
Schiavoni pointed to Gov. John Kasich’s more than $5 billion in tax cuts to businesses and slashing of the Local Government Fund – a state vehicle for distributing funds to local governments – as the catalyst for the sniping among municipalities.
“When you balance budgets by cutting local governments, and you give the dollars back in income-tax cuts to the highest earners, you have every municipality and township looking to figure out how they’re going to balance their own budget without those state dollars they were used to receiving,” he said. “So you have to figure out what you have, like water, and utilize that and raise revenue off of it to try to balance your budget.”
Schiavoni said he believes the bill is unlikely to pass, and Ramesh Kashinkunti, the chief engineer of the MVSD, agrees.
Kashinkunti said he isn’t worried about its passage.
“Bills like these come and go,” he said. “This isn’t the first bill of its kind, and previous bills like it have been rejected by the state. Even if it were to pass, our counsel has advised us that we would not be impacted.”