Niles mulls water rate hike

NILES — Mayor Thomas Scarnecchia said the city needs to raise water rates during a contentious finance meeting Tuesday.

If the plan goes through, water customers will be charged 15 cents more per 100 cubic feet  — up from $2.98 to $3.13 — but that isn’t the only increase consumers will see on their bill.

The plan is to also charge a flat fee of $5 more per month for residents and $10 more per month for commercial and industrial users, Scarnecchia said. The plan is to enact the increases for the December billing cycle, he said.

The 15-cent increase will be used for operational expenses and the flat rate would go toward the capital improvements the department is responsible for, Scarnecchia said.

The water department needs cash to address its aging water towers, troubled waterlines, broken fire hydrants and to install 5,000 water meters that have been collecting dust in the city’s unused pool in Waddell Park.

Scarnecchia said he is open to other suggestions, but he doesn’t know how the city will overcome a water department deficit that was reduced by $1 million this year but is expected to remain stagnant around $500,000 in the next year.

The plan will bring in $852,240 for the capital projects and $320,000 more for operations, Scarnecchia said.

“Once we don’t need it [the increase], we can get rid of it,” Scarnecchia said.

However, the plan doesn’t have a time limit at this point. Several council members encouraged him to add one.

“If you want to cover a project, then do it for the duration of the project. It needs to be earmarked for specific uses,” Councilman Stephen Papalas, D-at large, said.

Papalas also was concerned about the flat tax, the $5 flat fee for capital improvements. He said it should be linked to consumption.

“If somebody is retired, they have to pay the same amount of money as me, someone who is working. Do you think it will be better if it was a percentage; that way, you pay for what you use,” Papalas said. “Figure out a percentage that would cover the same amount; that way, people on a fixed income can afford this.”

“We need to have specifics, to tell the people what it is going to cost, for how long and why. I know it is in the early stages, but we need specifics, said Councilman Barry Steffey, D-4th Ward.

Councilman Ryan McNaughton, D-at large, said there should be a three- or five-year time frame for the increase.

The Mahoning Valley Sanitary District — where the city buys its water — has raised the rates on the city numerous times, and the city hasn’t raised rates on the residents, McNaughton added.

In addition, City Auditor Giovanne Merlo said the city is paying for water at a higher rate now because they aren’t consuming enough to qualify for a cheaper rate.

It may be viable to make the rate increase for one year, because the city is expecting new revenue next year with the Lordstown power plant, Merlo said.

The city will be supplying half of the plant’s water and Warren will supply the other half, Steffey said.

If a time limit was in place, people might feel better about it, McNaughton said.

Councilman Steven Mientkiewicz , D-2nd Ward, said the taxpayers already approved a city-wide “bailout” this year, when voters passed a 0.5-percent income tax increase.

“Number one, this is a slap in the face of the citizens. Number two, people cannot afford it. People just cannot afford it. Number three, put a viable plan on paper, a road map of sorts. This is how a plan like this usually works,” said Mientkiewicz.

Wanda Burns was one of four members of the public at the meeting.

“I am sick and tired of the way my money is being spent. I want my money used properly, I am tired of this. I can afford a rate increase, but I know a lot of people can’t. I am not saying they are doing this to hurt somebody. None of this is easy, I know that. But where are we going to be if it continues down this path? I am sick of this,” Burns said.