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Planning Future In St. Clairsville

When St. Clairsville Mayor-elect Kathryn Thalman takes office next week, her top priority needs to be addressing the future of the city’s water and sewer systems. No doubt she has been thinking a great deal about that since she was elected — in a landslide — on Nov. 5.

For much of this year, incumbent Mayor Terry Pugh has been firmly on the side of selling the utilities to a private company, Aqua Ohio. A slim majority on City Council seemed to favor that approach.

But the Nov. 5 municipal election was in some ways a referendum on whether to privatize the water and sewer systems. In the voting, Pugh received just 375 votes. Challenger William Brooks came in second, with 488 votes, and Thalman won with 635 votes. Both Thalman and Brooks had opposed the proposal to sell the systems to Aqua Ohio.

Their combined vote, at nearly three times what Pugh received, sounded very much like a message from the electorate.

City Council’s composition will not change, however. All three incumbents — Linda Jordan, Beth Oprisch and Mike Smith — were reelected.

Since the election, the question of what to do with the water and sewer systems seems to have lain dormant. The issue has to be faced, however, and soon.

Officials who favored privatization pointed to severe deterioration of the systems and the need for very expensive repairs and upgrades in order to comply with Ohio Environmetal Protection Agency mandates. We have heard no estimates of the cost to do that, but the prie tag is likely to be well into the millions of dollars.

For the city to undertake the work on its own, customers would be hit with enormous rate increases, proponents of privatization have said. Aqua Ohio has the financial ability and economies of scale to get the project done at lower cost to customers, some city officials contend.

At some point, OEPA officials will want to know, one way or the other, how St. Clairsville intends to proceed. As OEPA Southeast District Chief Craig Butler emphasized during an Oct. 17 council meeting, city officials “have some real challenges that they need to overcome … as soon as possible.”

As soon as practical after she takes office on Wednesday, then, Thalman should lead council in moving forward on a decision regarding privatization. Either way, it will not be pleasant — but something has to be done.

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