Kent seeks to raise water and sewer rates by 9% in January

Image of water flowing down a street while people inspect the base of a water town
Water spills down Fairchild Avenue on April 24 during a water tower leak. Photo by Corey Fowler

Citing increasing costs, Kent City Council is expected to approve 9% rate hikes for both water and sewer, effective the first billing cycle in January 2023, at its Dec. 21 meeting.

The city’s current rates do not generate sufficient funds to upgrade and maintain Kent’s infrastructure, city leaders say. Nor does the income cover the increased costs of chemicals needed to process the water.

Under the proposal, monthly minimum water charges will rise from $12 to $14, the new rate sheet indicates. Instead of paying $42.97 for each 1,000 cubic feet of water up to and including 100,000 cubic feet, the price would be $46.84. For monthly amounts above 100,000 cubic feet and up to and including 300,000 cubic feet, the cost would rise from $40.96 to $44.65 per 1,000 cubic feet used. Higher usage than 300,000 cubic feet would be billed at $42.16 per 1,000 cubic feet, up from $38.68.

Wastewater fees would rise from $60.34 for each 1,000 feet of water to $65.77. Customers who have been accustomed to paying monthly minimum charges of $18.12 a month would pay $19.73. Those who had paid $54.31 a month would pay $59.19.

City leaders are looking ahead to even greater rate hikes. Starting in 2024, the ordinance calls for yearly 3% rate hikes for both water and sewer, and council reserves the right to review needed increases on an annual basis.

City Manager Dave Ruller said the 9% increase is less than what the city originally planned and attributed it to 8-10% inflation rates. The rate hikes, he said, will cover operational needs, not capital projects, he told council in November.

City Finance Director Rhonda Hall told council in November that city leaders have options: increase the rates, delay capital projects or borrow money. Service Director Melanie Baker was likewise succinct.

“The bottom line is the age of infrastructure and the inability to keep up with repairs,” she said.

Council Member Jack Amrhein said council last approved water and sewer rate hikes three or four years ago. The hikes then, he said, were less ambitious because city leaders balked at heftier increases.

“We put off the raise as long as we could, and now we just can’t do it anymore,” he said.

Kent’s aging infrastructure mirrors what communities across Northeast Ohio are facing, Amrhein said. Updates and endless repairs, let alone the cost of critical materials, simply translates to dollars.

“We’ve pushed this off as long as we could, we’ve delayed raising it as much as we could.

But right now, we have the repairs and some aging infrastructure. It’s in bad shape. It needs to be repaired, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. It’s only going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, council had actually envisioned a rate hike schedule that anticipated even larger increases but put that on hold when Covid affected so many residents’ incomes, Council Member Gwen Rosenberg said.

“We’re extremely sensitive to the fact that a large percentage of our population is financially insecure, and these things are not insignificant to their wallets,” she said. “Nobody wants to raise rates. That’s the last thing anybody wants to vote for or approve, but in situations like this, it’s an unfortunate necessity to secure water and sewer for everybody.”

Written into city law is financial relief for residents who qualify. They must:

  • Hold a Golden Buckeye Card or proof acceptable to the city that they are at least 62 years old
  • Live in the structure to which the utilities are being billed
  • Are the person to whom bills for the utility services are being addressed
  • Provide proof of a $27,950 adjusted gross income if single, widowed, legally separated, or divorced; or a combined adjusted gross income of $31,950 if married
  • Have some disability that impedes steady employment or is certified as permanently and totally disabled

Residents who qualify are eligible for 20% discounts on both sewer and water, Hall said.

A spokeswoman in Kent’s utility billing office said people who are having trouble paying utility bills may also be referred to Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Family & Community Services of Portage County, or Community Action Council. Each agency has its own criteria for providing emergency and ongoing financial assistance.

A year of major repairs

In 2022, Kent rehabbed clarifiers at the city water reclamation facility, a $3.1 million project that was covered by the state public works commission and state and local ARPA funds. Replacing the southwest pump station and sanitary sewer cost $2 million, which the city financed via the Ohio EPA’s Division of Environmental and Financial Assistance. That project was slated to have been completed in spring 2022, but City Engineer Jim Bowling said supply chain issues dragged out the project until fall.

Repairing the water tower on Fairchild Avenue, which suddenly and catastrophically failed April 24, cost $250,000 and involved shoring the foundation, replacing damaged piping and replacing an altitude valve. Supply chain issues affected repairs, which started April 25 and were not completed until November. The city is still trying to determine what caused the failure so that it does not happen again, Bowling told council in November.

The city was also on a $390,000 hook for sandblasting and painting a 250,000-gallon low service tank, located on Terrace Drive next to Kent State University’s water tower. Kent has two water service systems: one high pressure and one low. The high pressure system mostly serves the areas around KSU’s campus while the low pressure system, which is on higher ground, takes care of the rest of the city, Bowling said. 

A water main at Riverside Court needed emergency attention in October, which meant another $100,000. While addressing that issue, city workers discovered problems with the sanitary sewer serving that area. No word on repairs to that bit of infrastructure.

Repairing Well #9 in the city’s wellfield and restoring it to service will cost $200,000. Involved in that effort are new lining, pump, piping and valves as well as updated electrical components and controls. That project began in August of this year and is not slated for completion until March 2023. Supply chain issues again, Bowling said.

The city’s well problems don’t end there. Well #12 unexpectedly failed earlier this year and required repairs to be put back into service. It’s back online but has reduced capacity. Rehabilitating it could cost some $450,000, Hall said, adding that the city may choose a different solution.

“The long-term plan is to find an appropriate place to install new wells into an aquifer that will provide the city with water for the next 50 years,” Bowling said.

On deck are completing the restoration of Well #9, installing the final clarifiers at the water reclamation facility and replacing water mains on Cuyahoga Street, Majors Lane and Stinaff Street.

Hall told council that the city will begin 2023 with $3.2 million in the sewer fund, a sum she said is higher than normal because ARPA funds were put to use at the wastewater treatment plant. The water fund is expected to start the new year with a $2 million balance, which Hall said was about average. However, she added that the water fund will begin 2024 with red ink, forcing the city to postpone needed projects until funding becomes available.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.