Wheeling Council Passes Utility Rate Increases
Several Residents Ask Council to Hold Off Until Later
WHEELING — Several residents of Wheeling spoke out against proposed water, sewer and garbage service rate increases Tuesday night, but city council members passed all related ordinances by at least a solid majority.
Public hearings on the rate increases were conducted at the beginning of Tuesday night’s regular city council meeting. The meeting was held in person, and the socially-distanced public gallery in council chambers was filled to capacity with a number of those people in attendance to speak against the rate hikes.
Despite the public pleas to put rate increases on hold, the vast majority of city council members deemed the measure a necessary evil.
The rate increases for water and sewer services will help pay for bond anticipation notes expiring this year from the most recent round of projects and will provide long-term financing for about $25 million worth of planned projects.
Officials said that total is a drop in the bucket compared to the $120 million worth of sewer upgrades that are part of the city’s long-term water pollution control plan and are mostly mandated to address Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
For an average household, the combined rate increase for water and sewer services will be around $16 per month. The garbage rate for the average municipal customer will increase from $14.50 to $16.74 per month.
Most of those who spoke before council requested that the city at least wait a year until the dust settles on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many people in financial hardship. Others noted that the city will soon be receiving $29.51 million through the American Rescue Plan, and it is expected that those funds can be used for infrastructure projects, although city leaders stressed that they are still waiting for guidance on how to use that money.
“I read through the ordinances and understand the reasons,” said Lynn Walton of North Wabash Street. “However, I don’t think this is the proper time. I just feel that this is the wrong time to do this.”
John Wojchowski of Edgwood Street thanked city leaders for the work they do and acknowledged that it at times was a thankless job serving the public. Yet he, too, felt the rate increases were coming at the wrong time.
“It’s going to crush our businesses,” Wojchowski said. “Can we raise it a percentage per year? This is really, really going to hurt senior citizens, too. They’re on a fixed income.”
Charles Ballouz of Main Street said the community is just starting to emerge from COVID and asked city council to table the ordinances for now.
“A dollar a month, or a dollar a year — it’s still going to hurt,” Ballouz said. “It’s one more thing to add to the problems of the past year. This time is not the time.”
Tim Dolan of 37th Street said issues like this keep driving people out of the city.
“I don’t know why we’re dumping into this when we know that federal funding is coming, there’s a possibility we can get the money from them, and water and sewer are supposed to be part of the package,” Dolan said.
Mike Trabert of Poplar Avenue said a 45-percent increase is a lot, and asked if at least a portion of the funds from the stimulus bill could be used to soften the blow.
“Put some of it toward that, and maybe reduce the amount you’re looking at for the increase,” Trabert said.
City Manager Robert Herron said the necessary rate increases are being implemented incrementally, over a long period of time. He noted that the stimulus funding may likely delay the next necessary rate increase when future rotation of projects are on tap. The city, he said, is completing $20-$25 million in water and sewer projects every three to five years.
Currently, the city can secure an interest rate of 3 percent or less on a $46 million bond issue for future projects.
“I don’t think any of us look forward to voting on sewer and water rate increases that are going to impact people in the community,” Mayor Glenn Elliott said. “But on the flip side of that, we continue to go along with an inferior sewer system, we’re going to continue to have issues.”
The mayor noted that the city’s need to move forward with the projects — and to fund them — has been looming for years.
“I recognize it’s going to hurt a lot of folks,” Elliott said. “But the city is in many respects behind where it needs to be in terms of getting our water and sewer infrastructure up to speed with modern day standards. We can’t keep kicking that can down the road.”
The mayor said the city must address problems in neighborhoods where raw sewage backflows into residents’ basements during heavy rains.
Councilman Ben Seidler voted against the water and sewer rate increase ordinances. Councilwoman Rosemary Ketchum voted against the water rate increase ordinance. However, all rate increase ordinances were passed by council.
Officials said they will be looking into whether or not funds from the American Rescue Plan can be used for a program that can be set up to help residents who can somehow demonstrate a hardship caused by the rate increases, and if funding can be used to help offset some of those costs.