September 17, 2014

Elyria
Mostly cloudy
70°F
test

Old contract appears to show Lorain may be wrong to raise rates

ELYRIA — Paperwork obtained by the county through a public records request to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency appears to show that the city of Lorain may have improperly raised rates on customers in Amherst, Elyria and Sheffield townships over the years, county officials said Friday.

But Lorain officials said they disagree with the county’s reading of a 1976 agreement between the Lorain County commissioners and the city of Lorain.

The contract states that “service rates are to be determined based on yearly budgets of operation and maintenance cost for city wastewater treatment and related trunk sewer and pump stations,” County Administrator Jim Cordes wrote in a letter to the city last month.

The agreement also calls for the county to pay the city “based on a ‘uniform base rate’ calculation,” Cordes wrote. The city was to prepare the calculation each year and submit it to the county for approval.

Cordes said the county doesn’t have any paperwork from the city dealing with rate increases in its files and has asked for the city to turn over any such documents.

“Maybe they’ll come up with some paperwork, we’ll see,” Cordes said.

The county obtained the document from the EPA while researching complaints from residents about the city’s decision last year to increase water and sewer rates on many homeowners in the affected townships from 130 percent to 200 percent of what customers inside the city limits were paying.

The city later backed off the increase under pressure from township residents and the commissioners, instead imposing a $10.94 monthly sewer maintenance fee.

Commissioner Tom Williams said based on the county’s review of the documents, it appears that the city was stuck with the rates it imposed back in the 1970s because there’s no record of them following the proper procedure to raise the rates.

It could mean that the city overcharged customers by millions of dollars, he said.

“The question is how far back can you go?” Williams said.

But Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer, whose grandfather, former county Commissioner Fred Ritenauer, signed the agreement in 1976, said the city has a far different reading of the paperwork.

“It also talks about the county or city being able to solely at their discretion increase rates,” Chase Ritenauer said. “There’s also a question about who the whole agreement covers.”

Cordes initially had written to the city that the agreement covered Elyria and Sheffield townships, although some residents in those areas haven’t seen their rates increase. He sent another letter Friday indicating that the county believes the contract also covers Hidden Valley in Amherst Township, where residents have been most vocal in their objections to rate increases.

He said the county has forwarded the 1976 contract to the city so it can respond to the county’s interpretation.

Ritenauer and Lorain Safety Service Director Robert Fowler both said there’s another issue that the documents don’t address. They said the county hasn’t forwarded payments from roughly 1,300 customers, mostly in Sheffield Township, to the city in approximately 12 years.

That could mean the county owes the city millions of dollars, Ritenauer said.

Cordes said county Sanitary Engineer Ken Carney, who is also the county engineer, held back the money so the city could pay down previous overcharges and that the county resumed making the payments in December when the books balanced out.

Carney declined to comment on the issue Friday.

Ritenauer said all of the issues surrounding sewer rates still need more review and discussion before anything further is done. Both sides have been reviewing documents that date back more than 30 years and the people who wrote those documents aren’t around to answer questions, he said.

“Sometimes the content could be perceived in different ways,” Ritenauer said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.