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Mount Vernon, Knox County, Ohio

By Cheryl Splain, KnoxPages.com Reporter

MOUNT VERNON — With around $6 million looming in EPA-mandated expenses, Councilman Sam Barone warned city residents to expect a series of increases in wastewater rates.

During a Utilities Committee meeting held Monday night prior to City Council's legislative session, Barone cited aging infrastructure needs, increasingly demanding EPA orders and the need for solvency as reasons behind the rate hikes. He said that “trying to live according to the culture of this city and deferring increases until absolutely necessary” has been negated by the EPA's requirement for phosphorus abatement.

“There's absolutely no way the city will be able to make these mandated improvements,” he said. “As good stewards, we have stretched our wastewater dollars as far as we can.”

Barone, who is chairman of the city's Finance and Budget Committee, said it is not a question of when but how to implement the rate increases. He favors an incremental approach: raising rates effective April 1, assessing where the city stands after evaluating what is needed for the phosphorus abatement, and then increasing rates over the next few years as needed. “By the year's end we will have a better grasp on what our phosphorus magnitude will be,” he said.

Warning residents that the April rate hike won't be the end and that there will be rate hikes in 2018, 2019 and 2020, Barone said, “I would like to see those be more measured and give council the opportunity to assess and set rates appropriately. I don't want to overreach and overcharge our citizens.”

Barone said that in comparison, Fredericktown and Gambier residents pay about three times what Mount Vernon residents pay for wastewater and water. Compared to cities in southwestern Ohio, Mount Vernon is in the lowest quartile of rates. “We obviously don't need to be in the top, but the lowest quartile is not appropriate,” he said.

The city last raised wastewater rates in 2011. State law requires the city to raise money for the water/wastewater services. “My feeling is that council needs to act effective April 1 so that the first billing in July we will start to collect at the accelerated rate,” Barone said, adding that he does not want a retroactive rate hike. This time frame gives residents the chance to adjust their usage if needed.

Councilman John Booth, chairman of the Utilities Committee, agreed with the incremental approach. “The cupboards are bare and I think we need to move quickly,” he said.

Council President Bruce Hawkins raised three questions:
Why only a wastewater rate hike?
Is the rate hike enough to take care of the decaying infrastructure or is more money needed?
Why has the city collected less in 2017 vs 2012?

Booth responded that the city council has no jurisdiction over water rates; the safety-service director sets those rates. Joel Daniels, SSD, said that water rates will also increases this year, although probably not as much as the wastewater rates.

Barone said that the rate hike begins to cover infrastructure repairs, but it will principally go toward covering the EPA-mandated improvements. “Once we're over the hump with the most expensive phosphorus mandate improvements, it will enable us to deal with some of these other things,” he said.

Scott explained that when wastewater users only fail to pay their bill, the city places a lien on their property. Previously, when the property was sold or the individual paid, the lien was satisfied first, and then the taxes. Several years ago the county reversed that policy; now, taxes get paid first and the liens second. Scott said that the money will eventually come in, but there is no way to predict when.

Councilwoman Nancy Vail said that according to a member of the group studying city finances, residents will pay more over time with incremental increases vs. a big increase up front. Booth said a big upfront increase places a burden on low-income residents and that building to a higher rate is more conducive.

Barone said that in the end, both approaches reach the $6 million needed. Gradual increases gives council a “checkpoint year after year,” and if a big increase is not needed, council can pull it back.

Booth favors a two-year increase; Barone favors a one-year increase, noting that one year gives the city time to complete the phosphorus engineering study and have more precise data moving forward. Auditor Terry Scott agreed. “Because it's unknown and uncertain what this phosphorus will cost, you need to get all of the facts you can and then make a decision,” Scott said.

The rate hikes also affects Clinton Township residents because the township has a wastewater agreement with the city. Council will hold another Utilities Committee meeting prior to its next council session.

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