Council reviews water numbers prior to final vote

STEUBENVILLE – City administration officials spent nearly two hours explaining why a water rate hike is necessary as the council members prepare to make a decision on the increase at Tuesday’s regular council meeting.

But several residents attending the utility committee meeting appeared to remain opposed to the rate hike that will take effect early next year if council approves the legislation next week.

“When are we going to have a game plan so we are not back here in three to four years with similar problems,” asked city resident Joe Scalise.

And city resident Tonie Dear questioned if council had spent enough time reviewing all options.

“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.

Wigal started the two-hour conversation with the council members and public stating the water filtration plant on University Boulevard is now seven years old.

“It is a very good plant but sometime we have to take short cuts in our maintenance at the plant because of financial issuers. It is like a new car. You want to properly maintain the water distribution system so it lasts longer,” Wigal said.

But the major reason for the proposed water capital improvement fund is a planned replacement of water lines and valves, which Wigal said are decades old.

“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.

He said Neptune Technology is preparing to replace all water meters in the city starting with large commercial accounts first.

“The new meters will be equipped with radio frequency signals that will allow our utility office to check each customer’s water usage. It will permit us to see if there is an unusual increase in water consumption that may indicate a leak. And in the case of a delinquent account, we can also turn the water off from the utility office instead of sending a crew to the delinquent account. We will hopefully change all the meters over the next 12 months,” continued Wigal.

“We also need to change the older valves that are now just balls of rust. That makes it harder to isolate a leak, especially in the downtown. We are putting a plan in place to continue the inspection of fire hydrants and replacing the hydrants that are not working properly. I estimate 20 percent of the fire hydrants in the city have a problem. This is also a good opportunity to replace the water line at the Steubenville Marina that may help with future economic development in that area,” said Wigal.

“We have tried to be proactive on locating and fixing water leaks in the city. We are seeing a decrease in the amount of water produced at our plant as we stop the leaks. We are addressing the water loss in the city,” noted Mayor and Acting City Manager Domenick Mucci.

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 is 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.

“I agreed with the $1.30 rate hike but I would like to look at lowering the $3.90 flat fee to maybe $1.90 this time and then raise it a dollar for the next two years,” questioned 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul.

“That will slow down our ability to raise money for the capital improvement fund and slow down plans to replace the infrastructure,” responded Kerker.

And Mucci said if the water fund is not addressed it may be placed under 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.”

The third and final reading of the water rate increase is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers.