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Mandates and Sewer Rates

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The last thing cash-strapped homeowners and business owners want to hear is the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District requesting a 9 percent rate increase over the next five years.

Sewer board member Gary Starr, mayor of Middleburg Heights, has raised good questions about the increase. He wants to make sure that the district does plenty of belt-tightening on operations and projects before he supports the increase.

Starr's questions are appreciated. Far too many trustees who serve on local boards simply go with the flow.

And fortunately, sewer district officials are listening. After the Cuyahoga County Mayors and City Managers Association also complained, sewer board members agreed to delay a vote on the increases until Dec. 7.

Many of the big projects on the drawing board - and their expenses - come courtesy of Uncle Sam. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rightly demands that Northeast Ohio and other metropolitan regions reduce the sewage that gets through its turn-of-the-century sewer plants, through its 100-year-old pipelines, and gets into the Cuyahoga River, Lake Erie and other local waterways.

Then Washington wrongly shrugs when the bill comes due. Right now, the district gets an estimated $30 million a year or so from a low-cost federal loan program. That's a drop in the bucket when the long-term projects list ultimately will soar to $2 billion.

The feds must give urban areas increased financial assistance for these huge jobs. The burden of this unfunded, unfair mandate falls far too heavily on the district's 330,000 customers in Greater Cleveland.

The sewer district's service area has grown since 1972, even though its customer base has remained the same and its industrial base has shrunk, said Erwin Odeal, the district's executive director.

Mindful of this region's lagging economy, the board has tried to cushion the blow. It recently whittled down its short-term project list from $819 million to $580 million, saving ratepayers some money - for now.

And it has decided to spread out the estimated $2 billion in federally required projects over 30 years, instead of the EPA-preferred 20 years. The EPA should accept the district's longer timetable. There's a greater likelihood that the projects will get done if ratepayers are able to keep pace with the bills.

"Ultimately, the only way out is some kind of federal participation," said Odeal. The new Democratic majority in Congress should hear that plea - and write a big check.

 
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