Council gives approval for water rate increase

STEUBENVILLE – A proposed water rate increase that inspired a two-hour debate during a townhall meeting was passed by a 5-2 margin Tuesday night and a promise to monitor plans to crack down on delinquent water customers.

“I am asking our new city manager, Tim Boland, and Water Department Superintendent Mike Wigal to prepare for a meeting in March to update the council and the residents on a plan of action to go after the delinquent water accounts and how we are going to stop water leaks in the city,” 3rd Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf announced following his vote in favor of the $6.50 water bill increase for minimum usage customers.

Customers who use more than the standard 2,000 gallons a month will pay $1.30 for every additional 1,000 gallons of water every month.

The new rate will go into effect in early February.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna joined 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto to vote against the rate increase.

“There is plenty of blame to go around in the past. We saw a former administration take money from the water fund to help pay for a new city building that has no janitor, no receptionist and no money for maintenance work. We have delinquent water accounts. I want to see a written policy for the water infrastructure improvement fund and what the money will be used for. I would also like to see our elderly citizens, who have paid their water bills on time for their entire lives, receive a 10 percent discount. We need more details on this hike. We need the rates increased but not right now,” declared Villamagna.

“I am for a rate increase under certain conditions. I pay my water bill every month and I believe everyone else should pay their bill. At the end of July, we had 5,065 uncollected water accounts. There was $2,999,440.34 that could not be collected. Everyone has to pay their bills,” noted DiLoreto.

Several of the approximately 45 residents who attended the two-hour townhall meeting at Eastern Gateway Community College addressed the delinquent water account issue and questioned why the city isn’t doing more to see past due bills paid.

“The system is absolutely broken. If I don’t pay my water bill and you don’t do anything then I will continue to not pay my bill,” stated Larry Thomaselli.

According to Law Director S. Gary Repella, “if the city issues a shut-off notice to a delinquent water customer the customer has the right to go to the delinquent water appeals board. We usually see 10 to 20 people every month and they usually ask for some relief. We try to put them on a payment plan. And, unfortunately we have a number of people who are considered uncollectable. They may be on a disability, Social Security or some type of assistance.”

“I think we should go after the delinquent accounts. I also think we should have a monthly Utility Committee meeting to look at the delinquent accounts and to start examining the unbillable water accounts such as the Jim Wood splash pad, the Belleview Pool and water used to put out fires. We can’t charge for that water, but we would know how much water is produced that can’t be billed,” said 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul.

Second Ward Councilman Mike Johnson said he will propose legislation to change the city policy to make property owners financially responsible for tenant water bills.

Teresa DiCarlantonio of the Hilltop Community Development Corp. said residents in the Pleasant Heights and LaBelle neighborhoods are concerned new water lines in the city will create higher pressure on their residential service lines.

“That will cost the homeowners money to replace their service lines. Why can’t the city pay for the new services lines?” DiCarlantonio asked.

“I understand the concern about replacing service lines. But, I also understand the age of our infrastructure. This plan to raise rates and to create a water infrastructure improvement fund comes down to our aging infrastructure and our water delivery service,” responded Wigal.

City resident Joe Scalise said the issue was, “a question of trust and credibility. I would feel more comfortable the money from the increase is going to be used responsibly.”

“Let me assure you the city administration staff will evaluate our water system and put together a plan that makes sense. We need to go after every grant available to us. We need to improve our collection process and we need new meters that will accurately and timely read all water consumption.,” stated Mayor Domenick Mucci.

In other business Tuesday night, council approved a new table of organization for city employees to reflect a 2.75 percent pay raise for fire department employees.

A 13 month contract was approved in December for the International Association of Firefighters Local 228.

Council heard the second reading of an ordinance creating regulations for vacant properties in the city, and also heard the second readings for legislation regarding the city building code.

And, a second reading was heard for an ordinance approving a purchase order for more than $3,000.

Mayor Domenick Mucci announced Metcalf will chair four council committees in 2014 including finance, service, public utilities and economic development. DiLoreto will chair the transportation and pride committees while Paul will chair the safety and health committee and Davis will chair the recreation committee.

The Finance Committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in executive session to discuss personnel and the Utility Committee will meet in public at 6:45 p.m. to continue discussions on delinquent water accounts.