• 59°

Proposed fee creates worry, confusion

Three simple letters that most people learned in grade school do not mean much on their own but put them together - CSO - and the confusion sets in.

Even seasoned city officials and knowledgeable businessmen get that puzzled look on their faces anytime someone mentions the Environmental Protection Agency's mandated Combined Sewer Overflow plan and permit requirement to maintain and improve the city's stormwater system.

Given a second reading, the plan was debated, explained and protested Thursday when a handful of business owners took to the Ironton City Council their concerns about the potential fees that could cost businesses as little as $15 a month up to several thousand each month.

"I just don't have it (the extra money). I implore you to look into every other option you have," said Jeff Dillow, owner of Spare Time Recreation. "This would be a big burden to all businesses."

"How many years has (the city) had to prepare for this? Now, are we going to have to suffer for others?" JoLinda Heaberlin, owner of Jo-Lin Health Center asked.

Dillow and Heaberlin were two of about six business owners that expressed their concerns for the amount of the fee that will be used for the CSO and stormwater projects. The goal is to determine the volume of pollutants that go into the Ohio River and to minimize untreated discharges.

Ironton has three types of sewer lines in the city -storm sewer lines that discharge directly to the river, sanitary sewer lines that go to the treatment plant and combination sanitary waste/stormwater drains. Keeping the two flows separate is the problem and often results in untreated waste water going into the river.

And it is no small problem. The city has seven discharge points that can contain wastewater that feed into the Ohio River and its tributaries. By EPA standards, each is allowed six discharges per year. Currently, as little as one-tenth an inch of rain allows untreated sanitary sewer into the Ohio River. At least five of the seven discharge points discharge more than 100 times each year.

Just outlining the plan will cost the city approximately $860,000. Actually implementing the plan and making extensive changes in the stormwater and sewer system could cost the city $20 million over the next 20 years. The fee is projected to generate $1.25 million a year but that takes into account some monies that will not be able to be collected.

As proposed, the fee structure will cost residential property owners $14.55 per month initially, but commercial and industrial companies will have higher bills. The cost is determined by the square footage of runoff surface - roof, parking lot, blacktop - a property includes.

City engineer Phil Biggs said that the city will look at ways to evaluate property more thoroughly on an individual basis and that some owners could significantly lower costs by making some changes.

But Mayor John Elam emphasized that he will do all he can to find grant funds to possibly lower the costs. Elam plans to meet with a state official next week who could help point the way to some grant money.

"We are looking at alternative ways of financing. From talking with Mr. Steve Wells of the Ohio EPA today, he indicated that we are pretty much behind the 8-ball," Elam said. "He is not either for a fee or against a fee, we just have to get a plan done."

Unless the plan is place by January 2006, the Ohio EPA will hand the case to the federal EPA, which could place significant fines on the city, as much as $27,000 a day, Elam said.

Agreeing with Biggs that the CSO plan may be largest unfunded mandate ever handed down by the government, Council chairman Jim Tordiff and the rest of council emphasized that it is not something they are taking lightly.

"We share many of the same concerns as the business owners," Tordiff said. "Obviously we recognize that any large, unexpected monthly bill is not in the best interest of the city in retaining businesses and attracting new businesses."

Ironton's fee is more expensive because the poor condition of the 53-miles of sewer system, the low rates on water and sewer services, the type of systems and lack of preparation over the years, Biggs said.

In addition to paying to draft the plan, funds generated from this fee will be used to create a storm water department that will be staffed by at least four people, purchase new equipment, map the city's sewer system, replace and repair the systems and more.

On the topic of fees, the much-debated municipal fee died quietly since it did not receive a motion to vote. The plan in various forms was the focus during budget talks but was defeated several times.

In other business, Council:

Updated the city's ordinance regarding driving under the influence. The change will allow the city to receive more of the fines issued instead of sending it to the state.