Council delays water rate hike decision

STEUBENVILLE – City Council delayed a final decision Tuesday night on a proposed water rate increase that is designed to erase a water fund deficit and create a capital improvements fund until the Jan. 7 regular meeting.

Third Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf asked for the two proposed water fund ordinances that were set for a third and final reading Tuesday night to be tabled until after a townhall meeting is held at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 7 at Eastern Gateway Community College.

But the delay is not long enough for 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna who asked the final vote be delayed until a February council meeting.

His motion died on the council floor when he did not receive support for the extended delay.

“This is moving too fast for me and the community. The community wants to see what we will do with the money. I believe whenever we are asking taxpayers for money we should hold a townhall meeting. It would be smart to develop a plan of action. And we need to look at a maintenance plan for the water filtration plant. I also think we need to look at the delinquent account collections because it is a little vague,” Villamagna stated.

“Councilman DiLoreto and Councilman Villamagna had questions about the rate hike. We will have the answers and will vote on Jan. 7,” Metcalf announced.

Metcalf also encouraged residents with questions regarding the proposed water rate increase to contact their council representative or the mayor in advance of the Jan. 7, “so we can prepare the answers for the Jan. 7 meeting.”

Metcalf asked Mayor and Acting City Manager Domenick Mucci to facilitate holding the town hall meeting at at community college campus after city resident Joe Scalise said the council chambers was not large enough for a town hall meeting.

“You have 7,100 customers buying water from the city. How are you going to put 7,100 people in this room? I would like you to find a better place for the townhall meeting. I also want to know what is the next water improvement project after the Buena Vista project. We are not here to disturb anyone. But 7,100 people deserve an answer,” Scalise said.

City business owner Mark Nelson questioned the need for a final vote on the rate hike immediately following the townhall meeting.

“That won’t give residents time to discuss the issue with their council member,” noted Nelson.

City administration officials spent nearly two hours last week explaining why a water rate hike is necessary.

“The proposed rate hike includes a flat $3.90 fee for every water customer that will be used to build a capital improvement fund. Customers will be charged an additional $1.30 for every thousand gallons of water,” explained Water Department Superintendent Mike Wigal at a utility committee meeting a week ago.

“We have had 14 breaks in the last two weeks. It’s getting out of control and we need to take care of our infrastructure. If we get the money in place we can move forward and start fixing our water lines. Our water pipes for the most part are cast iron that corrode and break. We will replace those pipes with a more flexible plastic pipe that is just as strong as the iron pipes and will last longer,” Wigal stated.

He also addressed water leaks in the city and said his department is making progress.

“We repaired two major water line leaks, one on Market Street and one on Slack Street. And our proposed new water meter system will allow us to divide the city into water districts. The new system will allow us to monitor each district on the amount of water sent to that area and how much is being billed. That will allow us to determine if water is going to a particular district and not being paid for. Then we can concentrate on finding the problem,” explained Wigal.

Finance Director Alyssa Kerker said the city is making progress with the collection of delinquent water accounts.

“We are actually at a good number at this point. Only about 1 percent of what we bill are considered delinquent,” said Kerker.

John Roush of the Rural Community Assistance Program has supported the rate hike and said, “the city is doing the right thing.”

“This rate increase will secure you for at least five years. If you proceed with replacing aging water infrastructure you will be able to stretch that time period,” said Roush.

And Mucci said if the water fund is not addressed it may be placed under a fiscal caution by the state. The state would come in and run the system. That is the reality if we don’t put the $6.50 increase in place.”

In other business during the final meeting of 2013, council heard a first reading for changes to the city’s building code and legislation creating new regulations for vacant residential and commercial properties in the city.

Council also heard the first reading for an ordinance approving expenditures without a purchase order over $3,000.

And council approved an emergency ordinance authorizing the finance director to transfer $27,955.94 from the city’s general fund to the summer food program.

Council also approved several year-end pieces of legislation regarding the 2013 budget and the 2014 revenue tax budget and temporary appropriations for 2014.

And council members said goodbye to 2nd Ward Councilman Rick Perkins, who is retiring on Dec. 31.

“You have told me some crazy things since I came onto the council. But you were always right. You have been a mentor and I will miss you,” 4th Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs declared.

“You have been a part of Steubenville history. You inspired me to become a public official,” Mucci told Perkins.

“It has been a pleasure to work with my colleagues. The next few years will be tough but you will work it out. I also thank the residents of the 2nd ward for their faith in me for six years and later another 13 years as your councilman,” Perkins said.

Council unanimously approved Mucci’s recommendations to re-appoint Judge Richard Powell and Carol Gaston to serve on the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County Board of Trustees.