Cleveland Heights residents monitor city's search for water solutions
Approximately 40 Cleveland Heights residents crowded into city council chambers on July 13, as City Manager Tanisha Briley presented a detailed update on the city’s troubled water department. Most in the audience sported stickers reading, “Public water? Yes!” created by writer and activist Joyce Brabner, and distributed by Cleveland Heights Citizens for Safe, Affordable Water.
Present at the Committee of the Whole meeting were Mayor Dennis Wilcox, Vice Mayor Cheryl Stephens, and council members Jeff Coryell, Kahlil Seren and Melissa Yasinow. Council members Mary Dunbar and Jason Stein were out of town. Flanking Briley were Utilities Commissioner Colette Clinkscale and other city staff members.
In a presentation that lasted more than one-and-a-half hours, Briley reported on both short-term measures to curb financial losses, and the city’s efforts to find long-term solutions to the water department’s looming deficit and decaying infrastructure.
The city is attempting to trim costs and raise income by auditing its billing system, reviewing delinquent accounts, conducting its annual leak survey and making repairs, reducing overtime and seeking ways to save on purchasing and inventory. The department also may begin to repair and resell older water meters, which would reduce purchasing costs while enabling homeowners to save money.
Briley indicated, however, that there was no way to stop the $200,000 monthly loss without a rate increase. The following week, at the July 20 city council meeting, she announced that, effective Aug. 1, rates would rise from $70.04 per MCF (thousand cubic feet of water) to $88.04 per MCF. Briley said that the average residential water bill will rise from $53.79 to $65.04, including the current $10 monthly service fee, but not including landfill and local sewer charges.
Briley also proposed that the city begin charging a $6 service fee to low-income and elderly residents, who have paid no such fixed fee to date. At the suggestion of Council Member Jeff Coryell, the other council members, and Briley, reduced that fee to $3.
In searching for long-term solutions, the city is still considering the options laid out in a January report by the consulting firm Energy Systems Group (ESG): (1) To borrow funds for repairs and improvements, overseen by an outside firm such as ESG itself; (2) to transfer its water utility to the Cleveland Division of Water; or (3) to enter a public-private partnership.
Since tabling the proposed letter of intent with the private firm Aqua Ohio on May 27, the city has actively pursued information on the first two options. A proposal from ESG is, in Briley’s words, “essentially ready,” with the recommended amount to be borrowed whittled from the original $20 million to $10 million. This approach would require a four-year rate increase, the amount as yet undetermined, to cover costs beyond the $10 million.
The city has also received an initial proposal, referred to as a “framework,” from the Cleveland Water Department. The framework lays out a process by which Cleveland Heights would convert from a master meter community, buying water from Cleveland and distributing it to residents, to a direct service community, in which residents become customers of the Cleveland Division of Water and the Cleveland Heights Water Department ceases to exist as a separate entity.
The framework sets a target date of Jan. 1, 2017. Cleveland Heights's 15,000 water customers (including about 700 households in University Heights and a small number in East Cleveland and South Euclid) would pay a “transition rate” plus a “recovery fee” for five years, to enable Cleveland to recoup its costs. Briley stressed that the framework is a starting point for negotiations and that she expects to continue discussions with Cleveland.
Briley hopes to present city council with a “side-by-side comparison” of the three options within approximately one month.
Cleveland Heights Citizens for Safe, Affordable Water continues to gather and evaluate information, drawing on the expertise of local legal and engineering professionals. Volunteers have created a spreadsheet, accessible at bit.ly/1tkooso, which enables Cleveland Heights residential water customers to see approximately how much they will pay monthly beginning Aug. 1 (Option 3). The document also projects water bills under two other short-term scenarios considered by the city (Options 1 and 2). In addition, it includes projected bills during a five-year transitional period proposed by the Cleveland Division of Water, and after that period (based on Cleveland's current rates). As with Briley's projection, these numbers do not include landfill or local sewer charges.
Cleveland Heights Citizens for Safe, Affordable Water can be reached through its Facebook page www.facebook.com/chsafeaffordablewater or by contacting Jim Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-321-9983.
Deborah Van Kleef
Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer. She grew up in Cleveland Heights, and has lived here as an adult for 30 years.