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Pressure builds to cut Liberty water rates

WARREN — Some Liberty Township water customers pay the second-highest water rates in the state, and although Trumbull County commissioners sought a study to propose solutions, they now say only a legislative fix can do the trick.

Commissioners and the county sanitary engineer’s office are expected to coordinate a meeting with Liberty Township representatives and state lawmakers in the Mahoning Valley to discuss a legislative solution to the law that allows multiple surcharges to be tacked onto utility bills as the water changes hands through multiple communities.

State law allows a 40 percent surcharge any time an entity sells water outside its limits, so the charges can be stacked if the water travels through multiple sources.

Water is shuffled through pipes owned by numerous other entities, each tacking on a surcharge, leaving the residents of Liberty to pay some of the highest rates in the county and state.

While Trumbull County water customers pay $8.22 per thousand gallons used, about 1,500 people in Liberty who buy their water from Girard have to pay $17.35 per thousand gallons used.

Girard buys its water from outside sources that upcharge the city, too. Its residents pay $12.39 per thousand gallons used.

Economic development officials in the last few years have said the practice, while perfectly legal, can be a deterrent to economic development activity.

Former Liberty Township Trustee Jodi Stoyak and her husband Stephan Stoyak, a township resident and advocate in the issue, began raising the problem with commissioners and the county sanitary engineer’s office in early 2019, hoping for a solution before county agreements with Girard expired. The Stoyaks raised the idea of the county taking over the waterlines that Girard uses to bring water to the 1,500 Liberty residents.

Girard city officials, though, are not interested in giving up the customers, and commissioners and the sanitary engineer’s office had concerns that going toe-to-toe with Girard on the issue could lead to problems with the contract between the county and Girard for sewage treatment.

In early 2020, a study was proposed to look at water distribution and explore alternatives for water service for the affected people in Liberty. Although MS Consultants was selected for the study at $49,000, the study never began.

At a commissioners’ meeting last week, Stephan Stoyak raised the issue again, inquiring about the delay, and asking commissioners to avoid a long-term, semi-permanent agreement with Girard — a 20-year agreement that expired last year has been extended through March — until a solution can be found.

Stoyak said there has been “little to no progress on moving forward to see if there’s any way that the county can go and take over water service for Liberty Township, to get us out from underneath the yolk of the second-highest water rates in the state.”

“I’ve been reviewing this and talking to the staff, and we really can’t see what information a study by MS will provide that we don’t already know,” Gary Newbrough, head of the sanitary engineer’s department, said in response.

Stoyak asked why the contract with Girard was extended and why MS Consultants was selected to study the issue, if nothing could be done.

SEWER DEAL

County Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said the county has not paid the consultants and “we extended it to try to vet everything possible that we could potentially do, but it always comes back to, ‘Well, if we take on the water contract, unfortunately, probably, the sewer contract won’t be as favorable.'”

Unfortunately, Cantalamessa said, the county can’t risk making Girard angry by trying to force a takeover of the 1,500 customers and in exchange get a bad deal with the sewage treatment contract.

“If we go in and try to take over the Girard water system, there will be repercussions for our sewer agreements, and those repercussions could be devastating to the sewer district,” Newbrough said.

Although the county would like to consider each contract on its own merits, it isn’t possible, Cantalamessa said, adding, “if that makes sense.”

“No, it does not,” Stoyak said. “To me, this sounds like extortion.”

Newbrough said there is no use for the study, and he thought so when it was first proposed — and still thinks so now.

Newbrough was appointed to lead the sanitary sewer department after commissioners in November canceled a contract with county Engineer Randy Smith to head the department. Smith is the elected engineer and oversees the highway department, but had for five years been under a contract to head the sanitary department as well.

County Commissioner Frank Fuda said the county knows all of the things a study could reveal and arranging the study “dragged on.”

When Smith left office, it had not begun yet. In June, the office was still in the process of selecting a consultant. There was discussion of including several additional communities in the scope of the study, as a possible answer to Niles annexation concerns. MS Consultants was selected by commissioners in September, but the scope of the study hadn’t been set.

DELAY TACTIC?

Following the meeting, Cantalamessa and county Commissioner Niki Frenchko said Smith may have proposed the study in the first place simply to delay having to make a decision that could anger one side or another during his re-election season.

“I didn’t know that the former sanitary engineer Smith was just tossing around a political football for purposes of an election. There is no other explanation … we come to find out that no one in that department knew or knows exactly what this study was supposed to accomplish. I’m just happy we haven’t spent a dime of county money on something so foolish,” Cantalamessa said.

“Unfortunately, the county has been plagued by politicians who sometimes drag their feet with the intention of retaining certain voters instead of taking swift action to solve inequities and concerns in the community,” Frenchko said. In an interview, Smith said the study was proposed because it is necessary. He said previously the pandemic made it difficult to proceed with the project in a timely manner.

Smith said the county couldn’t make a real proposal to Girard without knowing more about the waterlines that service the Liberty customers.

The study is needed to identify water pressure and water loss issues, create detailed maps and identify where valves are, Smith said.

“I’m not sure it would change anything with the surcharges, but it is a way to identify problems and identify the options that exist,” Smith said.

No detailed maps of those waterlines are readily available in county systems, Smith said.

NO EASY SOLUTION

“There’s just no easy solution to this situation. I hate the fact that people in Liberty are out there paying the second-highest rate in the state. I wish there was something we could do. I wish we had a silver bullet that would solve this problem, but there really isn’t. It’s a tough spot,” Newbrough said.

Girard treats more sewage flow for the county than Warren does, Newbrough said. If Girard played hardball in negotiations for that treatment, it could “ruin” the sanitary sewer district, he said.

With that hanging over the county’s head, every option at the county level to resolve the problem has been “exhausted,” Frenchko said.

Residents of Liberty have suffered long enough, she said. Now, the county can only look for partners to “create a legislative change.”

“Our hands are tied in some instances because of the legislation that exists and the code that we have no control over with the exception of lobbying to modify it,” Frenchko said.

Cantalamessa said the issue of numerous “fiefdoms” taking cuts every time the water changes hands is symptomatic of a larger problem.

“We’ve got all these fiefdoms and we’ve got to look at regionalization, and that’s a larger, bigger endeavor that is going to involve some state initiative and support. But we’ve already started talking to our state reps about consolidating districts and that type of thing,” he said.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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