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03-29-03: Sewage fees may increase in Celina
The Daily Standard
    Increasing state regulations and decreased water usage are steering city officials toward increasing sewer rates for Celina customers.
    Long put-off capital investments in Celina's wastewater department combined with increasing Ohio Environmental Protection Agency mandates have created a need for a sequential rate increase, utilities committee members said.
    The committee reviewed a pile of graphs and revenue spreadsheets regarding the wastewater funds at a noon meeting Friday. Graphs charted 13-year income and spending histories for each area of sewage collection and treatment, as well as water usages.
    Members unofficially agreed that a rate increase in the range of 12 to 15 percent would be needed for the 2003 and 2004, with a small annual adjustment each year after to keep up with expenses.
    Sewer bills are generated based on readings from water meters, so any significant change in water sales affects wastewater income. Using graphs, Safety-Service Director Mike Sovinski showed the committee and visitors how water usage has dropped 17.5 percent since 1998.
    In the last five years, the department's total operational cost increased 5.8 percent per year on average, while total income increased 3.2 percent per year, the graphs showed.
    In 2002, the total operating cost was $832,000, nearly 30 percent higher than the 1998 cost of $602,000. Total income in 2002 was $1.44 million, an increase of only 2.5 percent more than the 1998 income of $1.40 million.
    Committee member Denny Smith noted that council's goal of reaching and maintaining a year-end balance of $1 million fell just short of the goal. The final cash balance has been increasing each year since 1997, until 2002. The 2001 fund end balance reached $998,673, but fell to $939,500 by the close of 2002.
    While a million in the bank could seem high, many municipal funds have bonding terms that require  certain year-to-year cash balances for emergencies.
    Celina has bonding requirements on the wastewater department incurred while financing sewer plant construction in 1993, Sovinski said after the meeting. He was unsure of the bonding amount off-hand, he said, but it is in the neighborhood of $500,000. Most city funds have minimum balance requirements and if not, maintaining one is a good idea anyway, he said.
    Aside from the income numbers on paper, major improvements, repairs and replacement of heavy equipment at the wastewater plant have been put off for a number of years.
    Wastewater Superintendent Mike Lenhart told the committee the EPA has been suggesting that the city set up a second shift of workers at the sewer plant, that the laboratory facilities be expanded and that a separate sewer collections department be created.
    Lenhart pointed out that city crew do nearly any cleaning or preventative maintenance on sanitary sewer lines, as the Vactor machine purchased 20 years ago is mainly used for leaf collection by the street department.
    "And the guys in the street department have way too much to do already to worry about taking the Vactor out," he said.
    Lenhart also mentioned other equipment at the plant that could self-destruct without a moments notice, such as three large air compressors/blowers from 1939 which would cost more than $100,000 to replace all three.
    Lenhart and Sovinski informed the council that new EPA regulations for sanitary sewer collection procedures may be coming in the next year or so. They would require a monitoring program and staff be in place to maintain sewers.
    Also, the sewer five-year National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is up for renewal in mid-2006. The permitting system is tailored to each large wastewater generator in the state and outlines EPA requirements.
    Lenhart said a slew of new mandates and ideas from the EPA could come with the permit renewal. One possibility is a requirement to produce class A sludge. Now, the end soil-like product from the sewer plant is considered class B sludge because of the pathogen content. The end liquid product, or effluent, is sent into Beaver Creek as clean water.
    Class B sludge has stricter rules for land-application to farms. It can only be used on crops not for human consumption. Class A sludge can be used in residential vegetable gardens, Lenhart explained.
    The switch from B to A would cost the city approximately $500,000.
    Each of the three committee members agreed more discussion was needed before a recommendation to the full council could be made.
    "I always ask the administration to bring a recommendation to me, and I haven't heard that yet, so how could I offer my decision," committee member Colin Bryan answered Smith.
    Earlier, Mayor Paul Arnold explained a rate calculation sheet handed out as an example rate increase plan. It showed a 12 percent rate increase in 2003, 2004 and a four percent annual increase for 2005 through 2007. If the rates were changed only half of 2003 would be counted, Arnold explain, so on paper 2003 increase would amount to six percent.
    The hand-out showed the resulting annual income for 2004 at $1.7 million and at $1.9 million in 2007.
    In a  separate matter under discussion, the EPA also mandated municipalities across the state to set up an off-shoot storm water collections department. It would eventually require Celina to monitor runoff from properties for contaminates and provide means to make upgrades and repairs.
    Sovinski said Celina has until mid-autumn to comply with the beginning states of the mandate. He said Poggemeyer Design Group, of Defiance, was hired to prepare a storm water management plan that fits EPA specifications, at a cost not to exceed $5,000.


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