ELYRIA — The city of Lorain is considering cutting the water and sewer rates for property owners in Amherst, Elyria and Sheffield townships that had jumped beginning with their July bills.
More than 100 residents learned of the negotiations between the city and Lorain County Commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski for the first time during a meeting Wednesday where they had gone to urge the county to pressure the city to reverse the bill increases.
Prior to the increase, which Lorain City Council approved in April, the township residents had been paying 130 percent of what customers within the city paid for their water and sewer services. That figure jumped to 200 percent after the Council vote and has led to outrage from residents.
Township residents also pay 150 percent of the rate paid by city customers on the debt service owed on loans for sewer projects, although that figure didn’t increase when Lorain raised the sewer rates.
“Our township residents are now forced to ration water,” Lynda Ashley told the commissioners during the meeting.
She said residents are taking military showers, using dehumidifier water in their washing machines and using their toilets several times before flushing because of the rate increases. Some residents now have bills of $200 and $300 per month, she said.
Ashley and other township residents, mostly from Hidden Valley in Amherst Township, said that if the increases stand they won’t back levies on the November ballot because they won’t be able to afford them.
Christine Winrod, another resident, called the move by Lorain to raise township rates but not those of customers within the city limits “opportunistic, predatory, unreasonable and disproportionate.”
Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer, whose absence from the meeting was heavily criticized by residents, said later that he understands why township customers would be upset about the increases, and that’s why the city is re-examining the issue.
“We’re looking at ways we can still achieve what we want to achieve and still be cognizant of the rates and the issues the residents have brought up,” he said.
City officials have said the rate hike was designed to raise funds to pay for infrastructure improvements, including a $65 million tunnel project designed to prevent sewage overflows.
Ritenauer said the city is looking at cutting back on the increase and finding another way to pay for the improvements. He said that possibly could come in the form of a fee, but that the details haven’t been finalized.
Ritenauer said he isn’t certain when he would take his proposal to City Council, although Kalo and Kokoski both said during the meeting that they hoped a deal would be struck in time for Monday’s Council meeting. If that happens, they said, a rate rollback could come as soon as the next billing cycle.
Ashley said after the meeting that she and other residents are leery of the private negotiations, particularly because Commissioner Tom Williams appears to have been deliberately excluded from them.
Williams, the only Republican commissioner, said he was unaware Kalo and Kokoski had been in talks with the city and hadn’t been able to get a meeting with city officials until later this month.
“We were shocked to learn this morning that two of them are meeting with the mayor, and one is not,” Ashley said.
Ritenauer had blasted Williams in a press release circulated at the meeting, accusing him of taking “potshots” at city officials over the rate increases.
“Unfortunately, Commissioner Williams chose immediately to take potshots rather than pursuing a route that includes both parties coming together to have a real dialogue and discussion,” the news release said.
Williams acknowledged that he has criticized the city for the rate increases but doesn’t see it as something that should have kept him from being involved in the negotiations.
“I really don’t think I took any potshots, other than saying ‘Hey, you’re gouging the residents of the townships,’ ” Williams said after the meeting.
Both Kalo and Kokoski said they feared that the heated complaints about Ritenauer, Lorain Safety Service Director Robert Fowler and other Lorain officials could impede the ongoing discussions to cut the rates.
“You can’t sit down and negotiate with people when you’re punching them in the mouth,” Kalo said.
Ashley said Williams, whom the residents see as their most vocal advocate against the rate increases, needs to be involved in future conversations, even if it makes Ritenauer uncomfortable.
“What, are you going to take your ball and go home?” Ashley said after the meeting. “We’re supposed to be adults, and we’re supposed to work together.”
Ideally, the residents at the meeting said they’d like to see the city roll their rates back to 130 percent of what Lorain customers pay. That’s the rate they contend was spelled out in a developers agreement with the city dating to the 1970s.
They also want to see the money they’ve already paid to the city from the increased rates returned to them.
Kalo and Kokoski said both of those were points, included in a resolution the residents pressured the commissioners into passing Wednesday, that were among the issues at the negotiating table.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.