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Liberty water contract on hold for two weeks

WARREN — Trumbull County commissioners want to take a “harder look” at contracts that impact about 1,500 Liberty water customers and 21,000 county sewer district customers, and voted Wednesday to table the contracts for two weeks.

The contracts, which had been extended, expired at the end of September, said Matt Blair, the attorney from the Trumbull County Sanitary Engineer’s Office who handled negotiations with the city for the county.

He said he would discuss the concerns shared by the commissioners with the city and see what type of agreement the two could reach.

Commissioners Mauro Cantalamessa, Niki Frenchko and Frank Fuda all agreed that the arrangement for the wastewater treatment contract is good; sanitary engineer Gary Newbrough said the rate locked in for 20 years will help keep the sewer district financially stable. But the commissioners said they want the ability to opt out of the contract if an opportunity for regionalization occurs.

When it comes to the 20-year water contract, commissioners also want to see an opt-out clause that isn’t dependent on both entities agreeing on an exit, in case a solution arises that would reduce the disparate prices for water the 1,500 Liberty customers pay.

Because Ohio law allows communities to sell water at an increased rate to water customers outside of the city limits, water providers often do.

The water can become more and more expensive as customers end up further down the chain of the original water source.

The 1,500 metered customers in Liberty are getting water Girard bought from several different sources that add charges when Girard purchases it. And Girard, by city ordinance, charges customers outside of its city limits a 40 percent surcharge.

The result is water rates that are higher for Girard residents than the county’s rate, and the 1,500 Liberty residents pay an even higher rate — more than double the rate of county water customers, amounting to the second-highest rate in the entire state.

County customers pay $8.22 per 1,000 gallons, Girard residents pay $12.39 per 1,000 gallons and the 1,500 Liberty residents pay $17.35 per 1,000 gallons.

While the county owns the water infrastructure, an agreement with Girard gives the city the ability to use the lines to deliver and sell water. Girard is paid directly by the customers and no money is exchanged between the city and the county in the water contract.

The commissioners said they also want to see documentation about money the city has invested in the water system and its capital improvement plans for the future.

Blair said the city spent about $2 million on the service area, recently spending about $1.2 million to refurbish a water tank on Sampson Drive. He said the residents that pay the higher rate have the option to annex into the city to obtain the lower rate in Girard.

It might be possible to create more regionalized utility districts in the Mahoning Valley, and the topic is being studied by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments. That is one of the reasons the commissioners want to adjust the opt-out clauses — in case a new regionalized district can be joined that would offer better rates, they said.

One business owner in that area said it costs more to provide water to an apartment complex than it does to heat it. The man asked commissioners to find a solution.

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