STEUBENVILLE - City Council members Tuesday night informally backed a proposed water fund budget that will include no layoffs and instructed City Manager Cathy Davison to aggressively market city water for sale to oil and gas drilling operators.
Sixth Ward Councilman and Finance Committee Chairman David Lalich said Tuesday night council will introduce a balanced budget ordinance at next week's council sunshine meeting and vote on the legislation the following week.
The city must submit a balanced budget to the state by the end of the month.
Davison had offered council two options including laying off a utility billing operator, a meter reader and an assistant water plant operator effective April 1.
But during the finance committee meeting, council members indicated they preferred the second option with no layoffs that could result in an $184,760 year-end deficit.
"In order to avoid laying off additional employees, I recommend we meet with the Rural Community Assistance Program representatives to ask them to look at restructuring our water rates. They will be available to meet with us on April 2. They may recommend raising our water rates or restructuring our water rates," stated Davison.
According to Finance Director Alyssa Kerker, RCAP may recommend city water customers pay a base charge and then pay for only the water usage.
"It could be a smaller bill for those customers who use less than 2,000 gallons a month but could be a larger bill for the customers who use larger amounts of water. RCAP will provide different options and we anticipate they will have a prepared analysis by early June. RCAP is looking at a three-year rate program. Once we have our new water meter program in place, we can look at our rates again," said Kerker.
"I don't believe any company that bids on our new meters will guarantee us the revenue from those meters. We need to do something about collecting on our delinquent water accounts," said Lalich.
"I have no problem with RCAP coming in. But we also have $160,000 in delinquent accounts. You are the city manager. You need to get this done. Alyssa can only do so much. We need an answer to this tomorrow. We can bring in all the new water meters we want and change the rate structure, but if we can't collect on the water bills, why bother," stated 2nd Ward Councilman Rick Perkins.
"We have employees reading meters every month and I find it hard to believe they didn't tell a supervisor that some meters weren't working. I will not vote for a rate increase to balance the water fund budget," Perkins added.
Lalich also asked Law Director S. Gary Repella to appeal a federal court order that required the city to create a water review board several years ago to meet with delinquent water customers.
"It takes eight months in order to shut off someone's water who isn't paying for it," said Lalich.
"It still goes back to the same good people who pay their water bills every month. If the water rates are raised it will be the same people paying a higher bill. I agree we should approach the federal government for relief on this court order," added 3rd Ward Councilman Greg Metcalf.
"In some way we have to sell more water. If we do that it will take care of the water fund deficit. Why not use the old tennis courts to stage the water tanker trucks," suggested Councilman at large Kenny Davis.
Council already informally agreed to a proposed general fund budget that includes closing the Pleasant Heights fire station and laying off five firefighters.
"I want to commend the fire department. One of our Jefferson Metropolitan Housing Authority houses caught fire this past weekend and the Pleasant Heights firefighters were there within minutes and prevented the house from further fire damage," stated city resident Sarah DiCarlantonio.
Council also continued discussions regarding the creation of a charter review commission and indicated a resolution will be introduced to start the process.
"I am saying we need to look at different avenues. We are cutting costs in the city and we need to look at changing our government. If you don't want to look at this that's fine with me. I would like to start this review this year so we would be ready to take it to the voters in November 2014. I don't see why we don't want to do this. The review commission may come back and say to stay with the city manager form of government," said 5th Ward Councilman Willie Paul.
"I want to do whatever is best for the city of Steubenville. It is ultimately up to the citizens. It is up to the citizens," noted 1st Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto.
During the regular meeting council approved legislation Tuesday night that will see a number of dilapidated condemned structures torn down this spring.
The ordinance declared the buildings to be unsafe and a public nuisance.
"Just a reminder that when a structure is torn down, the lot still belongs to the property owner. The owner is still responsible for the property maintenance. A lien is placed against the property by the city for the cost of the demolition," explained 4th Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs.
City resident William Watson suggested council consider changing the city laws to take over houses before they become dilapidated.
"The city could then sell the house to someone who will make the needed repairs and live in the home. We don't need to totally tear Steubenville down," said Watson.
Council also approved an ordinance authorizing the city manager to advertise for a total meter replacement program with a revenue guarantee.
In other business during the regular meeting, approval was given to the administration to sign an amended agreement order for judgment with the Ohio attorney general's office regarding the closure of the former city landfill near the Jefferson County airpark. And in conjunction with that legislation, council approved an ordinance authorizing the city manager to advertise for bids for the construction of two wetlands at the former city landfill to meet Ohio Environmental Protection Agency requirements.
Paul voted against both ordinances and later said he did not believe the wetlands "need to be built that fast."
"We need pulsator covers at the water filtration plant. The wetlands can wait," said Paul.