Having spent some time in government I know a little bit about water rates, water departments and water fund laws. It always amazes me just how accepting and compliant people are about water issues. The only water issue people ever remark about is when they get a higher than expected water bill; the aggregate cost, however, doesn't seem to faze them.
Before I tell you about how the water users in my town overlooked being billed twice for over $400,000 of water, it is important that you understand some legalities surrounding water rates. Our state constitution requires that tax rates be approved by us citizens; water rates do not require approval.
However, laws require that revenue from water rates be kept separate from tax money to prevent local governments, who cannot get additional taxes approved, from just raising water rates to gain additional money. Water revenue can only be spent on water-related functions; it is unlawful to spend money received from water rates on general government services.
Another reason for this rule is that cities often supply water to people who do not live inside their borders and it would be unfair to charge them more for water in order to fund other services that they do not benefit from.
Nearly 20 years ago the city of Girard purchased two lakes, supposedly for a water source; they borrowed the money from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The yearly payments on the loan were around $200,000, paid for, naturally, by the water users through higher rates.
When the city ran short of money, it took two years worth of these payments out of the water fund and spent them in the general fund to pay for general city services. This illegality triggered a fiscal emergency that brought the state in to run the city's finances, which it did for 10 years, by the way.
Eventually, the ODNR demanded that the city make up for the missed payments, so what do you think the city did? It borrowed the money to make the payments.
Now, fairness would dictate that the departments that spent the money would have to pay the premiums on the loan, right? But that isn't what happened. The city made the water department pay the loan.
This is akin to having your home burglarized, catching the burglar, and you having to make restitution. $400,000 dollars of ratepayers' money was taken illegally, and when it had to be repaid, the ratepayers were forced to repay it.
The unfairness to the Girard citizens, of course, is that it amounted to an un-voted tax; at least though, they did benefit from the money being spent on other city services. The water users who lived outside the city limits, however, were not so well served. Not only do they not benefit directly from Girard's services, they are levied a 40 percent surcharge on their water bills.
I think it's high time we take a regional look at how we provide water to the area's citizens. Are water customers being treated equally? Are some water sellers diverting water funds to help support unauthorized services? Are we being charged more for water than necessary?
Think about it for a moment; what costs go into providing water? The Meander Reservoir was created 80 years ago at a cost of $9 million; the cities who built it, Youngstown and Niles, long ago recouped their investments. And, unlike other utilities, water providers obtain their raw product free. Every year Mother Nature kindly replenishes the water that was sold. Other than the cost of filtering, purifying, and transporting the water, what costs are there?
Maybe the surrounding communities should explore using eminent domain powers to acquire the reservoir for the public good. After all, no one seems to have any qualms when private property is taken by eminent domain to build or widen highways and roads; what better use of that power than to insure the equal treatment and access of the area's citizens to such a vital commodity.
Moadus is a Girard resident.