EVENDALE, Ohio - Yesterday, Communities United For Action (CUFA) members asked the Board of Hamilton County Commissioners to move forward on key points of our "People's Sewer Justice Platform." The Commissioners vowed to take action on:
- Expansion of the Customer Assistance Program to help more people afford sewer bills;
- Restructuring sewer rates to be fair for everyone; and
- Ending the requirement to report sewer backups within 24 hours to be eligible for damage compensation.
Residents from Springlawn Avenue in Northside attended the meeting to ask for a resolution to sewage overflows in their backyards.
Expansion of the Customer Assistance Program (CAP)
The new Customer Assistance Program, implemented in August, is limited to seniors 65 and up that own and live in their home as a primary residence and have an income lower than $32,800/year (including income from their spouse). The current program is limited by state law, but could be expanded to include renters.
Elder Donell Raglin testified at the Commissioners meeting, saying, "I am a renter, but I'm fully responsible for my water and sewer bill. I would qualify for the current program, but it won't help me because I am a renter. I researched the state law, and nothing prohibits Commissioners from adding coverage for seniors who rent their homes."
Commissioners did not comment on whether they would add renters to the current program.
Roy Davis took on the state law in his testimony, saying, "We worked with Sen. Cecil Thomas and his legal team come up with new legislation to expand the law to allow Commissioners to cover all seniors, all low-income ratepayers, disabled people, people experiencing temporary hardships and landlords that house low-income tenants. Being a renter who gets the cost of utilities passed off to me in my rent, it's important to include landlords that house low-income tenants in the programs."
CUFA shared the legislative language with all three Commissioners in individual meetings in July and August. On September 11, Vice President Summerow Dumas signed on in support of the legislative language CUFA is proposing.
On Sept. 11, Commissioner Portune responded to CUFA via email, saying, "I have always supported a customer assistance program based on means, senior status, disability or other reasons that address hardships faced by individuals. State law however prevents counties from doing any more than what we have done. We have contacted state legislators to help us on this issue but in reply to you I also ask for CUFA to focus on effecting changes in state law that would allow us to do the same."
President Driehaus did not state her position on the legislation, but vowed to work with CUFA to expand the program.
Restructuring sewer rates to be fair for everyone
In a Sept. 16 letter to Commissioners, Cincinnati City Council and the Mayor Cranley, CUFA expressed support for the Sierra Club's demand for equitable sewer rate restructuring.
Kevin Hengehold summarized, "We need comprehensive rate reform so that people are charged a fair amount for sewer service. And to pay for it, we need to end the massive corporate subsidies that large industrial customers receive. Customers who use more than 50 CCF of water see a 20% decrease in their rate. Why? In a world where we want to conserve water, where our sewer system can’t handle all the water it receives, why in the world are we incentivizing people to use more water instead of incentivizing them to use less?" Hengehold asked the Commissioners to work with CUFA to restructure rates.
In Portune's emailed response, he told CUFA that, "Yes I support fair and equitable sewer rates. We have made a variety of rate policy changes so far to help ensure rates are fair and equitable and I support looking at what else we may be able to do. Please also understand that we have held rates without any increase for many years in a row and know also that the change in federal legislation enacted into law in January of this year which the county is responsible for will save us about $1 Billion in costs over the next 15 years – savings that should further keep rates at present or lower levels."
Commissioners are voting Sept. 26 on a resolution authorizing the County Administration to develop a work plan for establishing impervious surface fee for the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD).
Ending the 24-hour reporting requirement for Sewer Backup help
Bob Zacharias, a sewer backup victim, testified at yesterday's meeting about his experience with the Sewer Backup Response Program (SBU), "I was denied solely on the basis of not reporting my sewer backup within 24 hours." Zacharias' daughter, who lives next door to him and had a sewer backup on the same day, was also denied help for not calling within 24 hours. Both appealed their denials through the court, but only Zacharias won his appeal. "I'm confused about the arbitrary way in which this rule is being used to deny people help."
Florence Miller, also a victim of sewer backup, asked Commissioners to file a motion in court to remove the 24-hour reporting rule from the Consent Decree (which governs the SBU program), so that it can no longer be used as a basis for denials.
Portune told CUFA, "I am happy to support a change to the 24 hour reporting requiting requirement related to the SBU program. A unanimous Board of commissioners agreed to support this as early as June of this year. I don’t know why MSD has not acted to do so, so far, but will look to try to make that happen again ASAP.
County Administrator Jeff Alutto said he would refer the matter to the County's Consent Decree legal team.
Residents from Northside's Springlawn Avenue won a commitment from Commissioners to move forward legislation to fund planning and design to fix sewage overflows in their yards.
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