Debate in Warren over wastewater upgrades, rate increase

WARREN — A study is underway to determine whether sewer rates will need to go up to pay for $69 million in improvements to the city’s wastewater system.

“There has not been any recommendation whether a rate increase will be needed,” said Ed Haller, director of Warren’s Water Pollution Control Department. “We have enough revenue stream in our department’s budget to pay for the first of three phases of improvements.”

However, how phases two and three — that consist of about $49 million worth of work — will be paid for has not been determined, fueling speculation there may be a rate increase in the future.

Warren hired HRG Engineering of Youngstown in January 2017 for $16,200 to do the study. The last rate study and increase was done in 2010.

“The study will look at how our rates are addressing our current needs, as well as current and proposed projects needed to be done,” he said.

The model will take into account revenue changes that may happen as a result of a new contract between Warren and Trumbull County for the city to treat the county’s wastewater. Negotiations on the agreement are happening now.

Councilman Ken MacPherson, D-5th Ward, said he has concerns over whether the improvements are required or simply wanted by the department.

MacPherson said he does not believe the largest project in phase one, an $11.2 million upgrade to a large pressurized pipe that carries waste to the treatment plant — known as a force main — and adding a second pipe to the main line, should be done.

The cost can be lessened by not adding the second pipe, MacPherson said.

“The city needs to get a budget on these improvements aligned with what is fundamentally needed and critical. We can whittle the price tag down,” MacPherson said.

“There are problems with the force main,” Haller said. “We do not know the level of damage there is in the pipes. We can’t take it offline to do repairs because the line carries the majority of the waste from the city to the plant.”

The department wants to run a parallel line and then repair and refurbish the existing line, according to Haller. Having both lines will create redundancy in the system.

Although none of the planned work is required by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Haller said the upgrades are needed due to age and condition of the plant’s equipment. The work is projected to take seven years to complete.

Warren is expected to get a $2.5 million loan from the state to do the design phase one later this spring. Construction, expected to start in 2019 and finish in 2021, will likely be paid for with another loan from the state.

“We have enough money in our budget to pay the loans required to do phase one,” Haller said. “We paid off the loans taken out for construction of the biosolids building and others in 2017. The income stream used to pay those loans will be used to pay for the phase one improvements.”

Although there has not been any formal discussions among council members about a rate increase, Councilman John Brown, D-3rd Ward, said the idea looms in the background during every discussion about improvements at the treatment plant.

“The wastewater department is a mandated service by the Ohio EPA and is expensive to maintain and operate,” Brown said. “Many of the improvements may be done with low to no interest loans, but I imagine there will be a necessity for a rate increase.”

Mayor Doug Franklin said the city would do a complete vetting of all of the proposed projects prior to allowing any of them to move forward.

“There has not been major upgrades in the department for many years,” he said.