December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Lorain County board to refund sewer bill overcharges

WELLINGTON TWP. — The Lorain County Rural Wastewater District board voted Thursday to refund customers who were overbilled for the first two months of the year.

Becky Haines, administrative assistant at Avon Lake Municipal Utilities, which handles LORCO’s billing, pegged the total amount the district’s customers overpaid in January and February at roughly $13,500.

LORCO Executive Director Eugene Toy said the overbilling was a mistake caused by a discrepancy in rate increases between what the LORCO board approved during a Nov. 8, 2012, meeting and the rates that were forwarded to Avon Lake.

At the 2012 meeting, the board approved raising rates by 10 percent for customers in 2013, jumping from $42 to $46.20 for the first 2,000 gallons of wastewater per month.

The cost of each additional 1,000 gallons was set at $5.50 under the resolution.

The board voted during that same meeting not to impose automatic 10 percent increases in 2014 and 2015, according to the official minutes.

But Toy said his predecessor, former LORCO Executive Director Rob Berner, didn’t make the necessary corrections to the resolution, which was later signed by LORCO secretary-treasurer Thomas Lahetta and sent to Avon Lake. The incorrect resolution also was placed into LORCO’s official collection of resolutions, Toy said.

Unaware of the mistake, Avon Lake imposed the increase at the beginning of the year, raising the minimum fees from $46.20 to $50.82 with the additional 1,000-gallon fee climbing from $5.50 to $6.05.

“I billed it off the legislation I was provided with,” Haines said.

Toy said that customers and a LORCO board member noticed the rate increase when their 2014 bills started to arrive and pointed it out to the district. Once officials figured out what happened, Toy said, legislation was drafted to correct the problem and restore future bills to 2013 levels.

“We’re owning up to what happened and correcting it,” he said before of Thursday’s meeting.

Toy and Amherst Township Trustee Neil Lynch, who serves on the LORCO board, later estimated that on average the mistake will mean a typical district customer will see an $11 credit.

Haines said she hopes that will show up on the March bills, which are set to be sent out at the end of the month, although Toy said it could take until the April billing cycle before customers see the credit.

This isn’t the first controversy to impact LORCO, which has faced widespread opposition to the sewers it installed in parts of Carlisle and Eaton townships. Although customers at the meeting said they appreciated the rate mistake being fixed, they remained concerned that they were alone in paying off the multimillion dollar system.

Toy acknowledged before the meeting that LORCO is spending more per year than it is taking in. He said the district spends about $2.3 million per year, but only takes in around $900,000 and there is no way to make up that difference with the existing customer base.

LORCO President Jim McConnell said when the sewer system was conceived, the district was expecting large-scale development in the area, but the economic recession that began
in 2008 caused the construction of new homes to grind almost to a halt. He said when the recession started, developers scrapped plans to build thousands of houses in the area and by then it was too late to halt the construction of the sewer system.

McConnell said the district is looking at ways to increase its reach and is examining the possibility of installing new sewer lines in South Amherst and Kipton, although that process is still in the preliminary stages.

He also said that the district is looking into a suggestion by Del Roig, who represents Eaton Township, that would see property owners in the townships that comprise the LORCO service area charged a fee to help offset the cost of the sewers systems operated by the district.

In addition to Eaton and Carlisle townships, Amherst, New Russia, Henrietta, Camden, Pittsfield, LaGrange, Grafton, Wellington, Rochester and Huntington townships are members of LORCO.

McConnell said Roig’s suggestion needs to be examined by attorneys to sort out whether all the property owners in the townships LORCO could potentially service can be charged a fee.

“There’s a whole lot of questions without any answers,” he said.

But the idea has support from those who were required to tap into the LORCO system and are now paying monthly sewer bills.

“I’m saying this board needs to make it right and assess the entire district,” Linda Morrison, a former Eaton Township trustee and frequent LORCO critic, said.

McConnell also said that he would like to see LORCO hire an expert to examine its rate structure and to discuss the possibility of charging fees even to people who aren’t tied into the system. But he also said he isn’t sure the district can afford that right now.

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