Guest column/A look at the issues surrounding water increases
As most residents of Steubenville are aware, the city is considering an increase in water rates. As the Steubenville water department superintendent, I have heard from citizens who understand the need for this increase and I have heard from those who want to know why. Misconceptions and misunderstandings about this rate increase abound. An understanding of the issues that we are dealing with is necessary for us to move forward. I would like to take a few minutes of your time to explain how this increase is structured and the need for its implementation.
Essentially, the rate increase can be split into two parts. The first part is a $1.30 increase per thousand gallons of water. The second part is a $3.90 flat fee for each customer. The price of $6.50 has been thrown around to describe this water rate increase. The minimum bill that the city charges is 2,000 gallons. Therefore, with an increase of $1.30 per thousand gallons, we get $2.60 for the minimum bill. If you add in the flat fee of $3.90, we get a $6.50 increase on a minimum bill. Many people refer to the bill that they receive from the city as their water bill. Please keep in mind that this bill is for sewage and garbage collection also and the water is only a part of the total.
A little more than six years ago, a new water treatment plant was constructed and brought online to provide Steubenville residents with water.
This new facility was built to replace the old water treatment plant, which was almost a century old. While our old treatment facility was meeting EPA requirements and making good water, it was struggling. We now have a state-of-the-art water treatment plant that is exceeding expectations and will be able to meet future EPA requirements.
However, due to the cost of the new water treatment plant, combined with the loss of large volume customers such as Wintersville, Jefferson County and the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., our water fund has been hit hard. During the last few years, we have had problems with balancing the water fund. We have had to cut costs, eliminate jobs and do our best to reduce overtime. The cost-cutting has caused our employees to find unique and roundabout ways to keep equipment running. Even though the plant is relatively new, maintenance is required. The elimination of positions is cause for concern because of safety and manpower issues. As far as overtime, some of it can’t be helped with the numerous water line breaks which occur at all hours of the day.
The first part of the increase, the $1.30 per thousand gallons, will go into the water fund. This will not currently bring back jobs, or eliminate overtime. What it will do is relieve some of the burden on our current fund and allow us to take care of our facility properly. The water treatment plant is an asset to the city and its residents. We cannot run it into the ground. The foundation of our water system is in need of attention and needs to be maintained in proper working condition.
As most residents are aware, we have numerous breaks all over the city. Our water lines are showing their age. Corrosion and fatigue of our water mains are resulting in failures of the system. The water distribution crew is kept busy with these breaks and the inconvenience to our customers is non-stop. Besides the interruptions to water service, these breaks result in claims against the city for property damage.
The second part of the rate increase, the $3.90 flat fee, will go into a capital improvement fund. This capital improvement fund will be used to make repairs to the infrastructure of our water system. This is all this fund will be used for. It will not go to other departments and it will not be used to pay any wages. This fund has one purpose and that is to improve our water infrastructure.
This fund will finance an ongoing program of water line replacements until any and all concerns about our water system are addressed. As water department superintendent, I don’t believe that I will see the completion of this program before my retirement. This will most likely take decades to finish, but I want to implement the process and protocols now for future superintendents to follow.
The water lines to be replaced first are the ones that are giving us the most problems. The line breaks are tracked as they occur and most residents already know the troubled areas.
As time goes on, lines are replaced, and the system is tightened up, the weaknesses in the system will appear and will most likely result in more problem areas as this plan progresses. We know the lines that need replaced at this time and the list of problem areas will need to be evaluated yearly. Please keep in mind that these projects will take planning and won’t be ready to proceed immediately but we have a starting point and initial projects in mind.
Another point that I would like to make about this infrastructure program is the cause of our problem. Currently, most of our water lines are cast iron. Iron rusts and pits resulting in a thinner pipe thickness where this occurs creating weak spots and resulting in breaks. This is just a natural process that occurs over time. Our plan is to replace these pipes with a plastic, or PVC, pipe that is just as strong, does not corrode and has some flexibility. The life span of these new lines will justify this investment.
Many cities across the United States are facing the same issues that we are concerning the infrastructure of their water systems. This is not a problem that is unique to our city. Every town and city will have to confront this problem at some point. The building of our new water treatment plant and the improvements currently under way at our wastewater treatment plant are just two of the ways that we are stepping up as a community and addressing these concerns. We are moving in the right direction.
Recently, City Council adopted a comprehensive plan created by the Steubenville Planning and Zoning Commission. This plan is a guide for the future growth and development of the city. A part of this plan is addressing the needs of our infrastructure and maintaining our utility systems. By taking steps to address our infrastructure, we are showing prospective developers, businesses and potential homeowners our commitment to our community. We impress upon people that the Steubenville community is reaching out to investors and is willing to provide a stable infrastructure for the economy of our city and area. I encourage you to go to the city’s website (www.cityofsteubenville.us) and become acquainted with our comprehensive plan.
As the superintendent of the Steubenville Water Department, I am committed to this process and hope that everyone understands the needs of our water system. These upgrades are a step in the right direction for the future of the city and will improve the services that most of us take for granted. Your participation in moving our community forward and understanding of the direction we need to go are vital. Change is never easy but communication is the key.
(Wigal is superintendent of the Steubenville Water Department.)