Study recommends significant sewer rate increases for Youngstown residents
Officials say residents can’t afford increase
By David Skolnick
A firm hired by the city is recommending Youngstown officials raise sewer rates by 8 percent annually for five years to pay for about half of the $160 million in federally mandated improvements the city is required to do.
Arcadis, an international firm that did the rate study, discussed the proposal at a Monday city council public utilities committee meeting. Several city officials said citizens cannot afford the proposed increases.
Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said he wants to have another meeting with the federal and state Environmental Protection agencies to renegotiate the $160 million settlement.
“People are going to end up with hundreds of dollars of wastewater bills,” said Councilwoman Lauren McNally, D-5th. “This will be a burden on our residents.”
Arcadis’ study, which cost $66,240, calls for 8 percent annual increases from 2019 to 2023. Some council members said they could approve a 2019 increase and then go year by year.
There are about 22,000 wastewater accounts in the city.
If approved, the monthly sewer rate would go from $98.91 per 1,000 cubic feet now to $106.82 in 2019, $115.37 in 2020, $124.60 in 2021, $134.57 in 2022 and $145.33 in 2023.
Arcadis officials said the typical residential customer in the city – a family of two to three – goes through 700 cubic feet of wastewater a month. Those monthly rates would go from $78.57 now to $84.86 in 2019, $91.64 in 2020, $98.98 in 2021, $106,89 in 2022 and $115.45 in 2023.
And this is for only $76.5 million of the $160 million of improvements required by the federal EPA.
“It’s very evident that we cannot afford $160 million of improvements,” said Charles Shasho, deputy director of public works.
The federal EPA originally ordered the city in 2002 to spend $310 million on improvements to its wastewater system. Because of the expense, the city entered into negotiations with the EPA from 2003 to 2011 in an attempt to lower that figure.
In 2011, the city received notification from the EPA that it wouldn’t seek $310 million in improvements because of the strain it would put on city residents.
It wasn’t until 2014 that the city and the EPA settled on about $160 million in work over 20 years. The projects are focused on upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, a new facility near the plant to better control sewage in heavier rainfalls and an interceptor to keep wastewater from flowing into Mill Creek.
The $76.5 million generated from the proposed rate increase would only be for the treatment plant improvements, Shasho said. The city has either completed those projects, has them under construction or is about to award a contract for that work, he said.
“I have a problem with any rate increase,” Brown said. “Truly, right here, is where the federal government has failed local government by doing this without considering residents. I’m not pleased with this and I’m not sure I want to say, ‘Let’s just go ahead with the rate increase.’”
The city could potentially go to court to get the EPA to reduce the amount of work required or seek to renegotiate the $160 million amount with the federal agency, Brown said.
If the city cannot convince the EPA to cut back on the work, additional sewer-rate increases would be needed to pay for the rest of the projects.
Council last approved a rate increase in November 2014 that started Jan. 1, 2015. Arcadis did a rate study in 2014 that recommended annual increases of 6 percent to 7 percent for four years. Council agreed to annual rate increases for those four years of 3.99 percent.