Sewer talks back on track

County votes against ending agreement

WARREN — Trumbull County commissioners Wednesday declined to end a sewer agreement with Warren, negating for now a threat that could have led to increased prices for sewage treatment services on the city’s eastside.

Commissioners said they made the move in the interest of reigniting negotiations for wholesale sewer rates for treating flow from Lordstown and Champion at Warren’s wastewater treatment plant.

A resolution — described by Warren Law Director Greg Hicks as akin to a terrorist taking a hostage — on the commissioners’ Tuesday draft agenda was dropped from consideration at the regular meeting Wednesday.

“I have been in contact with Mayor (Doug) Franklin and we are going to meet Friday in the spirit of cooperation. I know that (sanitary engineer) Randy Smith and this board has gone above and beyond what other boards and engineers have done in the past with plowing services when we assist the city, whether it’s buying salt or whether it was helping with paving roads with our grinder. So there has been a good relationship there. And with this most recent situation, I think it’s going to really put a wedge between the city and the county so I’m hopeful, I’m willing to be at the table. We’re going to talk Friday,” said Dan Polivka, county commissioner.

Letters that hundreds of people in the “North Road corridor” received from the county warning of a potential rate increase appear to be null, for now.

Customers in the 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 per 1,000 gallons by 2024, because of a “unilateral” push by Warren to raise rates. The rate increase would have forced the county to pass the cost on to customers, the letter states.

But because of a 1982 city council ordinance requiring equal sewer bills for all residents of Warren, the city would have to eat the difference of the cost to the consumers so the cost would not be passed to the residents, Hicks said.

Polivka said in addition to plans for officials to meet Friday, the two sides are coordinating plans to have their negotiating teams meet up once or twice more over the next two weeks to reach an agreement. Negotiations first began with no mention of the North Road corridor. The tension began late last year after the end of a contract that set the wholesale rates Warren charges the county for sewage treatment for residents of Champion and Lordstown.

The county pays Warren about $1.96 per 1,000 gallons to treat sewage. The county in turn charges its customers the retail rate of $6.66 per 1,000 gallons, according to numbers provided by the Trumbull County Sanitary Engineer’s Office.

According to the county, the city was pushing for a 200 to 300 percent wholesale price increase to treat the sewage, raising the wholesale rate to $4.91 per 1,000 gallons in 2020 until it reaches $7.85 per 1,000 gallons in 2023.

The county says Warren is trying to push $70 million in wastewater treatment plant upgrades on the backs of Lordstown and Champion residents, while the city says the county has long benefited from low rates and it is time for them to pay their fair share.

Polivka said he hopes they can “come up with something that is workable and is a win-win for the county and the city. And I don’t know if that is possible, but I’m willing to put in 110 percent to make it happen. And I know you are, too, mayor, according to our conversation.”

Although representatives of the city were present at the meeting, none spoke up during public comments, but did stay after the meeting to chat with county officials.

John Brown, Warren city councilman at-Large, said he has faith in the administration and the county to come to a deal.

“We need to get this under control. We need strong leadership, to work together as a team, fix the problem and get to a resolution. We are all on the same team. We are all in the same city. I don’t know why this is such a big problem,” said Ken MacPherson, D-5th Ward. “We need to end the dumpster fire this has become.”