In 2014, after the U.S. Environ- mental Protection Agency ordered the city of Youngstown to upgrade its wastewater treatment system at a cost of many millions of dollars, we urged officials to explore all funding options.
But we also warned that time was of the essence.
The Youngstown-U.S. EPA agreement coincided with the drinking water crisis in Toledo that resulted in 500,000 area residents not able to use their tap water for four days.
An aging treatment plant in Toledo was partially blamed for the crisis. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found “significant deficiencies” at the plant and said the facility was on a path toward “imminent failure.”
Toledo’s mayor at the time, Michael D. Collins, called the treatment plant “an atrocity” and said decades of failures by city leaders to make critical improvements to ensure pure water for the populace were to blame.
TOLEDO TOOK ACTION
Spurred by the crisis, Toledo City Council approved annual 7 percent increases in water rates through 2020 to finance $300 million in upgrades to the plant.
Against that backdrop – and the fact that the city of Youngstown and the U.S. and Ohio EPAs have spent years talking about what needs to be done – we were taken aback last week when the state agency told City Hall it was delaying about $12 million in loans.
The reason: City government has failed to raise sewer rates to generate the revenue needed to repay the loan.
There isn’t enough money in the city’s wastewater fund to cover the costs of the improvements that would be undertaken with the $12 million loan from the state.
Yet, Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown is refusing to pull the trigger on a rate increase.
“Am I ready to raise rates?” Brown asked. “My response at this time is no.”
It should be noted that although Brown has been mayor for a little over a year, he served in city council during the time the city was negotiating with the U.S. EPA on the upgrades to the infrastructure.
The mayor wants an affordability study to determine how much Youngstown residents can afford to pay. He also wants to meet with federal and state EPA officials to discuss a possible reduction of the $160 million in upgrades the city agreed to undertake.
And, Brown believes city government should hire a lawyer to negotiate with the EPA on reducing the price tag.
“When I tell people we negotiated this with in-house attorneys, they laugh at me,” he told The Vindicator.
The city has already borrowed about $60 million from the state for wastewater improvement projects, with repayments over 20 years, starting in 2020.
The city also has paid about $1.5 million from its wastewater-fund reserve for EPA-mandated improvements, but can’t cover the rest of the work with cash reserves in that fund, Kyle Miasek, interim finance director, said.
That fund currently has a surplus of about $13 million.
We are intrigued by Mayor Brown’s comments about the actions of the previous administration, led by Mayor John A. McNally, in dealing with the federal and state agencies.
It will be recalled that Brown unsuccessfully ran against McNally, a former member of council and former Mahoning County commissioner, for the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2013.
He again challenged McNally in 2017 and won. McNally had pleaded guilty to four criminal charges stemming from his involvement as county commissioner in the Oakhill Renaissance Place conspiracy, but he was not required to resign from his elected position.
Since taking office, Brown has had to deal with myriad budgetary challenges, including a state auditor’s finding that previous administrations had misused $5.5 million from its water, wastewater and sanitation funds for downtown projects.
The state wants that money to be repaid from the city’s general fund, which would create a sea of red ink. The operating deficit would place city government in state-mandated fiscal emergency.
There’s little chance of the city experiencing a significant boost in revenue, which is why we have urged Mayor Brown to cut spending.
As for upgrading the city’s wastewater treatment system to meet federal clean- water standards, the city of Youngstown has long known that the day of reckoning would come – sooner than later.
Brown cannot be blind to the reality that an increase in the sewer rates is inevitable. The federal and state environmental protection agencies will not wait indefinitely for the city government to act.