City ready to implement costlier water bills

STEUBENVILLE – City Manager Tim Boland’s second day on the job earlier this month included a two-hour town hall meeting to discuss a proposed water rate increase designed to establish a water infrastructure fund and to help heal a city water fund facing a growing deficit.

That rate hike was approved by a five-to-two margin at the council meeting following the town hall meeting that will now go into effect on Feb. 7.

“It is very important for our water customers to be fully aware of the changes they will see on their water bills in the coming weeks. The $6.50 increase will go into effect on Feb. 7 for all customers but the customers may see the increases at different times in February and March on a pro-rated basis. The $3.90 increase will go into effect immediately for all customers and that money will go directly to the water infrastructure fund that was established by the city council for pipe repair and replacement projects,” explained Boland.

“The $1.30 for every 1,000 gallons of water will go into the water fund to help eliminate the anticipated deficit this year and going forward,” Boland added.

“Most customers will see a partial increase in their February bill and the full increase in March because of our five billing cycles,” noted Finance Director Alyssa Kerker.

Every city water customer is charged for a minimum 2,000 gallons of water every month.

“We believe the average water customer in Steubenville uses about 4,000 gallons a month. So it is fairly easy to calculate what the increase will be for their household. The Utility Collection office has also added a payment schedule on the city Website at that allows water customers to see what they will be paying under the new rate. We are anticipating seeing approximately $330,000 each year be going into our capital infrastructure improvement fund,” Kerker stated.

“The administration and city council will be working to identify all of the variables in determining the water infrastructure improvements. Some areas of the city have a chronic history of line breaks. So, we want to develop a strategy on where we will replace aging or chronic line breaks as we go forward. The important thing is to develop an action plan for the future and to keep that plan flexible. We know we have aging water lines and we can’t be inflexible. We may see an area that hasn’t been a problem become an issue. We have to strike a balance where we address the chronic problems and the areas where we suddenly see a major issue,” Boland explained.

“Our intention is to present a tentative action plan to the city council utility committee in February and then present a more concrete action plan to the committee in March. Several ideas are now under review by our department heads,” said Boland.

“This year we are looking at two projects. The first one is the Buena Vista Extension that the city council approved to move forward on because the residents in that neighborhood have metal fence posts serving as water lines. And some of the lines are connected to different residences so the water pressure will fluctuate. The other replacement project is Harvard Avenue where a street paving project is scheduled. It makes sense to replace the water lines under the roadway while the street is torn up,” remarked Water Department Superintendent Mike Wigal.

“The city water distribution system is operating through older cast iron pipes. We plan to replace cast iron pipes with industrial standard PVC pipe that will last a lot longer. Our goal is to do two replacement projects every year. I hope we can eventually replace all 358,000 feet of water lines in the city. But that won’t happen while we are in office,” said Wigal.

City Engineer Mike Dolak said they key to future placement projects will be city departments working in conjunction and with communication.

“I always have my list of city streets designated for repaving at the first of the year. Hopefully we can plan the water line replacement in partnership with the paving projects,” Dolak commented.

Since the city council approved the water rate increase there has been a constant demand to resolve delinquent water accounts.

“I have asked the Finance Department to outline the collection process. An analysis of our collection procedure will have value for us. I hope we can show progress in our collection system. We are very focused on how we can be more focused on the issue. And we are considering property owner responsibility for delinquent water bills from rental tenants,” Boland noted.

“We are examining all current policies and procedures and are working on ways to collect on the delinquent water accounts more efficiently and quickly. Delinquencies have always been an issue but every year we have found different ways to tighten up our collection process,” declared Kerker.

Another issue facing the water department are the unseen water leaks and Wigal said a healthier water fund will allow his department to focus on finding and stopping the leaks.

“We are looking at the purchase of leak detection equipment and hiring leak detection contractors. The contractors have been successful in the past in helping us find leaks and we have been finding major leaks in the downtown area and making repairs,” Wigal said.

Another area the administration officials are working on is the replacement of commercial water meters and then residential water meters.

“The idea is to replace the current water meters that may not be totally accurate with radio read meters that will allow our utility collection office to read meters from the City Hall office. That will allow us to be more proactive in finding leaks. And customers will be able to monitor their own water usage,” cited Kerker.

Boland has also organized a grant committee that will include himself, Dolak, Wigal, Wastewater Superintendent Chuck Murphy, Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi.

“We are going to look at available grant money as well as the best opportunity to obtain grants. We want to be as effective as we can and seek grants that give us the best opportunity to obtain the money and to get projects done,” Boland said.

Boland told city council members he is preparing to increase efforts to increase the city’s water customer base, design a water filtration plant maintenance plan and asset management plan and constantly set goals for greater efficiencies and revenue enhancement strategies.