by Doug Livingston and Amanda Garrett Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com
Akron resident Carla Deiss Dobbins is flummoxed: Why does it cost more to flush her toilets than to heat her Firestone Park home during the dead of winter?
Water and sewer would cost her family of four about $28 a month, about the price of taking the family out for Galley Boys at Swensons.
But now her bill is nearly three times that because of price hikes to pay for a massive sewer project to stop untreated waste water from flooding into rivers and streams.
The price tag of the project is staggering: $1.2 billion. Akron’s entire general fund to pay police, firefighters and other city services is only $168 million per year.
Yet Akron can’t slow down or turn back the sewer project to lessen the burden on rate payers.
The U.S. EPA ordered the overhaul to satisfy the Clean Water Act and a federal judge signed off on the timeline: It must be completed by 2028. And while the federal mandate dictates details of the plan, it provides no money — other than low-interest loans — to get the $1.2 billion project done.
That means the burden in Akron and other cities with aging sewer systems under similar federal mandates — including Canton, Youngstown and Cleveland — falls on rate payers.
Rich and poor, home owners and renters, churches and businesses — whoever flushes in Akron is paying the price.
“I just think it stinks, and to me it’s wrong,” Dobbins said recently. “I pay city taxes and I don’t know why the project is not being paid with that instead of tacking it on our utility bills.”
Dobbins — a warehouse worker who lives with her daughter and her daughter’s two children — uses about 4,488 gallons of water a month, which is about average for a family of four in Akron. The city charges her about $88 per month for water and sewer. Her bill says 67 percent of that — about $59 — goes entirely to the federally mandated sewer project, which the city has dubbed “Akron Waterways Renewed.”
“Our water bill is about $60 more than my gas bill, even now, which to me doesn’t make sense,” Dobbins said.
Bills coming due
Rates last went up for sewer customers in 2014 and 2015. Since then, the city has collected about $21 million to $32 million extra each year, after covering expenses.
That’s allowed the city to quickly build up a $101 million cash reserve. The cushion — which is more than the city’s annual sewer budget in two of the past four years — should help pay for the sewer overhaul projects for awhile.
But not forever.
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said he can only promise to avoid another rate hike through the end of 2020. That’s when the $184.1 million bill comes due for Rosie, Akron’s tunnel-boring machine, and the work it and others did to create a mile-long, giant sewer tunnel under the city’s downtown.
Paying off that and other sewer projects will trigger deficit spending (starting this year but accelerating in 2020) in the ratepayer-fed sewer fund.
A majority of Akron City Council members said they oppose another rate hike. They understand that sewer bill increases disproportionately impact the poor, something their current and former colleagues and then-Mayor Don Plusquellic worried openly about before seeing no other way than to raise the rates.
Current Council members have asked the administration to share projections showing if and when the $101 million in reserves will be gone.
But few offered alternative funding solutions.
“My residents can’t afford (another rate hike) and we as a city just went and asked them to approve a .25 percent income tax increase (to pay for road paving, police and fire services),” Councilman Donny Kammer said. “We need to find better ways to fund this project even though I think the current mayor is doing a better job addressing the issue.”
Councilwoman Tara Samples, who represents portions of South Akron, Downtown, University Park, Cascade Valley and East Akron, said her landlord tacked $100 per month on her rent to cover the rate increase. “I can only imagine the devastation it would cause families who are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I have the poorest ward on council so I’m definitely not going to support (another rate hike).”
And she wondered whether high utility bills could undermine the city’s growth strategy.
“If we’re talking about attracting more people to the city and growing our population, our (sewer and water) bills alone will make someone not want to move here.”
How did we get here?
Akron had been trying overhaul its combined sewer overflow system since 1994.
But EPA mandates outpaced city progress. In 2009, a federal judge who later criticized the city for spending more on parking decks than fixing sewers signed a decree mandating immediate action.
Tense negotiations ensued among Plusquellic, the U.S. and Ohio EPA and U.S. District Judge John Adams. Plusquellic recognized the cost and asked to spread the work over 30 years.
The judge rejected that and in the end approved one of the most stringent Clean Water Act decrees is the nation. Akron had to come up with — and pay for — a plan that would capture every last drop of untreated sewage before it hit waterways regardless of heavy rainfall or snow melts.
Aaron Renn, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, said Akron is an interesting case study among the cities facing similar clean water decrees.
“Plusquellic’s feud with the EPA and the judge … Akron really ended up in a particularly unfavorable situation,” said Renn, who published a study in 2016 about how to pay for upgrading city sewers.
At the time, Renn told Next City, a website, that he wanted to understand what was holding back economic development in Rust Belt cities. On top of federal mandates to fix old infrastructure, many of the cities faced high unemployment and poverty.
And rate hikes are the equivalent of a regressive tax increase, Renn said during an interview this month. Because they’re adjusted the same for everyone, increasing the rates means low-income households lose a greater share of their paychecks.
The report, “Wasted: How to Fix America’s Sewers,” suggested modified sewer rate structures, enhanced state and federal aid and a more aggressive shift to green infrastructure that can help mitigate sewer overflow by slowing down storm water before it reaches the sewers.
In the three years since his report, the EPA hasn’t changed its demands of Akron. But Akron officials have continued to shave some costs from the $1.2 billion project.
Since taking office in 2016, Mayor Horrigan takes credit for $81 million of the $200 million saved so far on the project.
Contractors have performed some of the work under budget, by as much as 30 percent in some cases. Changes in engineering have saved millions more. And some green ingenuity — like plants and soils that capture storm water and release it slowly — offered cheaper options than original plans.
Yet the cost savings aren’t enough to pay for what’s coming next.
The sewer overhaul must be finished by 2028, but the debt will linger much longer. By 2026, the city’s annual debt payments for the projects will reach $56 million, almost three times what it is now.
That means two generations of children yet to be born in Akron will likely being paying for the sewer overhaul.
Horrigan said in a statement emailed to the Beacon Journal that “as long as I am in office, I will continue to pursue every possible, responsible option available in order to defer and minimize any future rate increases for our customers, while upholding our obligations to protect the environment and invest in our infrastructure for this and future generations.”
But it’s a tough spot, and missing deadlines could trigger civil penalties in the thousands of dollars each day.
Horrigan — or whoever the mayor is after this election year — will either have to figure out an alternative funding source for the sewers or convince the public that clean water is worth even higher sewer bills, even if some can’t afford them.
This Is Akron: Get Involved
Journalists from the Akron Beacon Journal, The Devil Strip and WKSU will host a series of conversations in April with anyone who works, lives or plays in Akron and cares about the future of the city.