Sewer system sale dominates commission meeting

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 7, 2023

The sale of the Union-Rome sewer system was the main topic of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of the Lawrence County Commission.

The commission heard from two customers of that system, who asked questions and expressed concern over the sale to Aqua. An agreement to sell the system was announced in January.

Joe Kline took issue with the amount of public discussion going into the sale, to which the commissioners told him everything was in compliance.

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Kline asked what would be done with excess funds from the sale.

Commission president Colton Copley said they has been speaking with Aqua to set up a fund “for citizens who need help.”

“So all profit would be rolled back to the customers,” Kline asked.

“Yes,” Copley replied.

Kline said that he felt the county had not been proactive regarding the system’s finances.

“I think the commission put an unfair burden on residents of Rome Township by lack of moving when they knew rates needed to be raised,” he said.

Commissioner DeAnna Holliday said she felt “users of the system have been in an unfair situation since the beginning,” long before she and Copley were elected to the commission.

She said previous officials had “lobbied for rates to stay low.”

“Moving forward, we have eliminated the opportunity be put in a situation again where your rates are determined by someone’s election,” she said. “It will be run by professionals who run these types of businesses, not elected officials.”

Copley agreed and said the county “should have been building a nest to take care of expenses.”

“It left us in a pretty bad situation,” he said. “It was unfortunate for everyone. We tried to get to a place where citizens could have sewer usage and the system was not in jeopardy.”

Rome Township resident JB Finley spoke next and said he felt it was his “civic responsibility to come forward.”

Finley wanted to know if the purchase agreement had been finalized with Aqua.

Copley told him that it is the case.

Holliday said the county is “working toward closing” on the sale.

Regarding the sale, Holliday said it was the best choice for the county.

“Getting ourselves until we were no longer in the red was one issue,” she said. “There was still no money for capital improvements, which could be millions of dollars.”

Holliday said if the commission had kept the sewer plant, customers could have been in a situation where rates were higher than what they would be if it was sold.

“And we were maxed out on bonding and we could not borrow another dime to support the system,” she said. “And, in June, we were going to default on our loan payment.”

Finley asked about the rate increases, which were set for five years, and wanted to know if there was any guarantee regarding rates on the 10-year contract with Aqua.

Holliday said Aqua would have to come before the county commission and the public utilities commission for future rate increases.

“It will be looked at by others,” she said.

Finley asked when customers of the system would be notified of the sale.

Copley told him that Aqua has a link on their website and information on their Facebook page about the process.

“And they’re planning a meeting to introduce themselves to the community,” he said. 

Holliday said the county is working to ensure a “smooth transaction” for customers.

“And all of our employees have been offered a job,” she said. “People will see the same faces they’re accustomed to dealing with.”

Commissioner Mike Finley, who took office in January, said the decision to sell the system was made before he joined the commission.

“I really believe it was not the best fix,” he said. “But it was the only fix. I did not have anything to do with it.” 

“And he’s made that clear to me,” Copley said.

Copley concluded by again reiterating that they felt the sewer system had been mismanaged by past office holders.

“You can’t take the DeLorean back to 1990 and tell someone to raise prices every year,” he said. “That’s the way it goes.”

The commission also heard from Dale Hartley, with the Community Housing Improvement Project, a nonprofit, formed in 1995, which works in approximately 30 cities in Ohio, including Portsmouth.

Hartley said he was there to tell the commissioners that Lawrence County is eligible “to the tune of $400,000” in Community Housing Impact and Preservation funds from the state.

Hartley said if Ironton combined with the county, then that amount would be $700,000.

He said his group helps municipalities with community improvement programs for low-to-moderate income families.

He said families who qualify for the program must own a home and meet income requirements.

“It helps people below the threshold,” he said.

Hartley said the community improvement program could allow for spending of up to $8,000 for a homeowner to fix a residence, with repairs such as hot water tanks, furnaces and others.

“There is no mortgage placed on the home for the program,” he said.

He said a second program also allows for up $80,000 for extensive work and a “complete overhaul” of a home.

“It is only for things that are needed,” he said, noting the improvements would be for those that would bring a residence up to state standards.

He said this program requires a mortgage.

“it goes away in five years,” he said, but it keeps people from getting a large infusion of money home and selling quickly.”

He said the deadline for the county to apply for the funds is June 21 and that they must first solicit the program in a newspaper. An agency selected would then do public hearings.

Commission president Colton Copley asked if there was a cost to the county, to which Hartley said all services his group does would come from the grant and not a county’s general fund.

“And the beauty is, to the extent possible, we use local contractors,” Hartley said. “A lot of money goes right back into your own community.” 

In other business, the commission:

• Approved the minutes of the meeting held on April 25, as corrected.

• Approved a renewal of floodplain permits: 2023-755 B.F. Iron & Metal Inc. -Filling & grading, culvert, barge repair facility and accessory structure, projects located at 582  Co. Rd. 1A; 2023-756 Mark A. Kipp- Filling & grading and bank stabilization projects located at 7136 Co. Rd. 15

• Approved appropriations and transfers under $50,000.  

• Received and filed the Lawrence County Department of Job and Family Services Social Services Data Report for March 2023.

• Approved the agreement for jail services with Gallia County for a three-year term with year one at $80 per day, year two and three at $85 per day, pending approval from the Lawrence County prosecutor.

• Approved a motion to Corey Watson, director of maintenance and technology, to have signing authority for any communications and technology Permits, retroactive to April 28, 2023.

• Approved and signed the Ohio Law Enforcement Bulletproof Vest Program application. Total cost is $39,736.62. Match requirement is $20,736.62. Total eligible for reimbursement is $19,000, requested by Maj. Julia Jones, Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department.

• Met in executive session with Michele Bower and Wanda Riffe for personnel, hire, fire, reprimand.