City and county spar over sewer agreements

Increased rate proposal for Lordstown, Champion in dispute

WARREN — Trumbull County and Warren officials are sparring over the cost of sanitary sewer services in Lordstown and Champion, and a Warren official said the county’s latest tactic is akin to a terrorist taking hostages.

In response to failed negotiations with the city over the proposed rate changes for about 3,700 customers, county commissioners today are expected to pass a resolution giving six-month notice to end an agreement with the city to treat sewage at a negotiated rate for about 1,000 customers in Warren, on the recommendation of Randy Smith, Trumbull County sanitary engineer.

“We don’t want to do this, but the city has left us with no room to negotiate,” said Gary Newbrough, Trumbull County deputy sanitary engineer.

Greg Hicks, Warren law director, said the city is willing to negotiate, but it is the county that has canceled meetings.

“We have a number ‘x’ we want them to pay because we are looking out for city residents. They have a number ‘y’ they want to pay because they are looking out for county residents. We need to sit down and figure out our ‘z.’ And I don’t know how we are going to do that if they won’t come to the table and instead try these dirty tactics. It’s like a terrorist taking hostages, when instead we should be holding hard-nosed negotiations,” Hicks said.

Smith said there hasn’t been progress in months of negotiations and the move is meant to get Warren to take the county’s position seriously.

“The county is always more than willing to sit down and negotiate in good faith, with two parties at the table. We have tried that and the meeting was unilateral. They said, ‘This is where we are and this is what you need to pay.’ They keep saying we’ve had a sweetheart deal, but we don’t think so. We believe in paying a proportionate cost to the flow. We shouldn’t subsidize Warren’s internal rates,” Smith said.

Trumbull County has long been benefiting from a low rate charged by the city to take in sewage from county customers in Lordstown and Champion, Hicks said. It’s been the same for 20 years. The low, wholesale rate of $1.96 per 1,000 gallons is less than residents of Warren pay now, which is 30 percent of the inside rate.

Since the beginning of the year, after the contract between the city and county ended without a replacement, the city has been sending a bill charging the county 150 percent of the inside rate, or $9.84 per 1,000 gallons.

The county has been paying its bill, but is paying it at the old contract rate, Newbrough said.

For leverage to force the city’s hand in negotiations, the county is looking to end the contracted rates for about 1,000 Warren residents who use county sewer services on the city’s east side, or the “North Road corridor.”

The city has not paid the bill for residents in that area since April 2017, Newbrough said. Although the county charges a higher rate for sewer services there than the rest of Warren pays, those residents are charged only what city residents pay, and the city reimburses the county for the difference, per a 1982 ordinance that guarantees all residents of Warren pay the same sewer rate. One reason the residents aren’t connected to the city system is because of the geography of the region.

Customers in the North Road sewer corridor received a letter from the county sanitary sewer billing department dated May 10 stating their current sewer rate of $4.65 per 1,000 gallons could be raised to $6.06 in 2019, and up to $21.30 in per 1,000 gallons by 2024.

Bills for residents in the area could rise from about $20 per month to as much as $95 per month, Newbrough said.

“We hope it doesn’t ever come to this,” Newbrough said.

Commissioner Frank Fuda said the county doesn’t intend to let the six-month notice to end the contract to pass without having a new agreement in place.

Hicks said the customers in the North Road region shouldn’t be brought into the dispute that concerns the city and the county’s agreement for services in Champion and Lordstown.

One of the reasons negotiations have stalled is because the county won’t provide a plan to maintain the sewer lines in Champion, which Hicks said are eroding like “swiss cheese,” leading to an exorbitant amount of storm water flooding the waste water treatment plant.

Smith said his office has shown Warren — through thousands of pages of documentation — that the county is always working on the line infrastructure. And, Smith said he isn’t convinced it’s Champion’s lines that are the culprit, but instead the city’s plant.

It is the city that has refused to turn over documents and give county officials a tour of the treatment plant the city says needs $70 million in upgrades, Smith said. Hicks said the tour of the plant was canceled because the county refused to agree to negotiate after the tour. Smith said the county does not want to go to the negotiating table without first getting copies of a rate study, or an “inflow and infiltration” study that would shed light on the excessive storm water flowing into the plant. Smith also wants a third-party agency to conduct a performance audit of the plant and see documents showing the upgrades at the plant are warranted.

According to the county, the city’s requested increases at the negotiating table would amount to a 400 percent increase between now and 2023, when the rate would rise to 120 percent over Warren’s inside rate to $7.85 per 1,000 gallons.

Fuda said he is trying to arrange a meeting for next week.