City takes step in the right direction for water in Cleveland Heights

On Sept. 21, Cleveland Heights City Council authorized City Manager Tanisha Briley to negotiate an agreement with the Cleveland Water Division. The vote was unanimous among the six council members present. (Melissa Yasinow was absent.)

The City of Cleveland Heights has taken a significant and potentially historic step.

For the past 110 years, since the introduction of piped water and indoor plumbing, Cleveland Heights has been a master meter community. This means the city has purchased water from Cleveland and resold it at a marked-up rate to residents and businesses. Unlike tax increases, which must be approved by voters, and service fees, which are authorized by city council, water rates can be raised at the discretion of the city manager and her staff.

Because it is Cleveland Heights voters who elect the members of council, who in turn appoint and oversee the city manager and her staff, some 700 University Heights households that are part of the Cleveland Heights water system have no representation.

Briley’s charge is to bring back an agreement for council’s approval, under which Cleveland Heights will give up master meter status and become a direct service community. If all goes well, as of Jan. 1, 2017, we will no longer pay marked-up water rates, increased further to cover losses due to decaying pipes and mains. In fact, during a seven-year transitional period, our water bills will be 15 percent lower than they are now. At the end of seven years, rates will go down again, this time by 33 percent. Cleveland Heights’s debt to Cleveland, and its deficit due to water loss, will be paid off during this seven-year period as well.

As for our 110-year-old water delivery system and its deferred maintenance, Cleveland Water expects to spend approximately $2 million per year on leaks that can be fixed by repairing existing pipes. We will also be eligible to apply for a portion of $15 million per year in Cleveland Water capital improvement funds to replace pipes that are beyond repair. 

Cleveland Water has begun a comprehensive regional leak detection program. Over the next four years, it will survey the full 5,200 miles of its pipes and mains, “listening” for leaks. If we become a direct service community, our 100-and-some miles of infrastructure would be included in this survey and, according to Alex Margevicius, Cleveland’s interim water commissioner, would probably be “close to the top of the list,” when it comes to prioritizing repairs.

On Nov. 3, Cleveland Heights voters will be asked to approve a badly needed income tax increase, to offset cuts in state funding. If it passes, according to Cleveland.com, a resident earning $50,000 per year will pay $125 more per year in city taxes. Under a direct service agreement with Cleveland Water, beginning in 13 months, the average household will pay about $115 less per year for water. In other words, for most of us, lower water bills will offset the increase in taxes.

Cleveland Heights should join 67 other longtime direct service communities and 1.4 million people in our region, including our close neighbors, Shaker Heights, South Euclid, Beachwood, and most of University Heights. There is strength in numbers. It is important to note that not one of these municipalities has asked to give up direct service and become a master meter community.

The best short- and long-term solution for both residents and the city is to change from master meter to direct service status, and set a new course for the next century.

Justin Gould and Deborah Van Kleef

Justin Gould is an attorney living in University Heights. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer from Cleveland Heights. Both are members of Cleveland Heights Citizens for Safe, Affordable Water.

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Volume 8, Issue 11, Posted 9:27 AM, 10.27.2015