Public Water — Yes!
For 101 years, the City of Cleveland Heights has purchased water from the City of Cleveland and marked it up for resale to its residents and businesses. Most University Heights residents and businesses—with the exception of 700 UH households, which are part of the Cleveland Heights water distribution system—have paid Cleveland directly, without their city serving as middleman.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, Cleveland Heights will join 67 other direct service communities in Northeast Ohio, and the city will be out of the water business. Water bills, which have climbed over the past year to cover the Cleveland Heights Water Department’s growing deficit, will actually drop slightly. Rates will fall more sharply when the deficit is retired after seven years.
Things might have gone very differently had the community not come together to send a large corporation packing and keep an essential utility in public hands. We are just two of many who gave their time to this fight.
The story began 17 months ago, on May 21, 2015, when the city announced a plan to lease its water system for 20 years to Aqua Ohio. A public forum was scheduled for May 26, to enable residents to learn about the proposed “public-private partnership.” On June 1, CH council members would vote on whether to begin negotiations, which Aqua Ohio stipulated must be completed in three months.
Online research acquainted us with the folks who wanted to control our access to water. Aqua Ohio’s parent company, we learned, is the $3.76 billion corporation Aqua America. Its subsidiaries have records of poor water quality, inadequate service, frequent rate hikes and a propensity to sue communities that seek to recover control of their water.
Our city manager, mayor and council members were trying to solve the increasingly urgent problem of a water fund deficit that originated before most of them came into office, and we sympathized. Still, we feared they were about to make a decision that was not in the community’s best interest, and that would have serious long-term consequences.
We contacted everyone we could. When we arrived on May 26, the meeting room was rapidly filling, and staffers were bringing in more chairs. To our surprise, we counted 230 in attendance; we passed around clipboards to collect contact information.
As the official presentations proceeded, the crowd grew restive. Once the floor opened to comments, dozens of people lined up behind the mic and, for more than two hours, expressed doubts, concerns and anger. Not one person spoke in support of the Aqua Ohio proposal, nor for any arrangement with any for-profit entity.
The next day, city council announced that it would table the vote on Aqua Ohio. But the problem of our water utility and its deficit remained.
We continued to move ahead. A few residents met regularly to strategize. Susan Miller set up a Facebook page: Cleveland Heights Citizens for Safe, Affordable Water. University Heights resident and lawyer Justin Gould joined us. Joyce Brabner created “Public Water – Yes!” stickers for supporters to wear. Our goal: Keep our water in public hands by joining the regional water system owned and managed by the City of Cleveland.
One member of city council, Jason Stein, had been advocating this course for a couple of years. As far as we knew, the rest were either skeptical or opposed.
Over the next three months, numerous concerned residents spoke at council meetings and wrote to city officials. Susan Miller and John Clark created a spreadsheet comparing water rates that residents would pay under various options. Alison Auciello of Food and Water Watch, a national advocacy organization, provided background materials and advice.
On Sept. 21, 2015, by unanimous vote, Cleveland Heights City Council authorized City Manager Tanisha Briley to negotiate an agreement with the Cleveland Water Division. This has been accomplished and, as of Jan. 1, Cleveland Heights residents will receive direct service from the Cleveland Water Department. By the time this column sees print, Cleveland Water officials will have held public meetings for Heights residents to learn more about the transition.
Democracy is messy, inconvenient, time-consuming and often unsatisfying. But the purpose of public bodies is to serve human needs, and on that basis we can hold them accountable. In Cleveland Heights, in 2015, when we joined together and spoke up, our elected officials listened.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.