Water bill woes: Lorain residents upset over water rate hikes

LORAIN, Ohio - The City of Lorain has a gorgeous view of its neighbor Lake Erie. The water is picturesque even on a gloomy day, but it's the water residents use in their homes that they say paints a far less pretty picture. 

"Lorain sucks for the water bill," resident Keith Whitnight said. 

"We call it the water bill woes, because we know what's gonna happen when we open that envelope," resident Nancy Krasienko said. 

The city raised water rates in 2017. Lorain City Council voted to increase sewer rates last year, too.

The "readiness to serve charge" used to be 30 cents for water and 30 cents for sewer. Now, it's up to $10 and $15, respectively, for a home with an average sewer meter. Per usage charges also went up. 

"Two cubic feet for $59, then we got two cubic feet for $71," Whitnight said. 

According to Lorain city officials, there was no way around it. Bill increases were necessary to pay Environmental Protection Agency mandated sewer upgrades. The EPA can fine the city if it doesn't make the changes.

Lorain took low-interest federal loans, but according to city leaders, there is no federal money or grant available to make these specific improvements. That leaves the city to pay for the loans through utility rates. 

But residents looking at continued rate increases say they can't afford them. 

"I'm hurting! I only make $900 a month, how am I supposed to pay this when it keeps going up and down?" Whitnight said. 

For longtime residents like Rosalie Martin, who is retired and lives on a fixed income, the increase is astronomical. 

"They've increased from about $25 a month to $60, sometimes $70 a month," Martin said. "It really makes a difference in what you have to give up, or not use."

Martin said the water bill hike is even more crippling because there's no governmental assistance to help pay the bill.

"There is no federal help. You can get help for heating, for food, for your phone, with your electric, but there's nothing to help with your water bill."

When News 5 brought these residents' concerns, and dozens of others to Lorain's Mayor Chase Ritenauer, he said he knows the new rates are a difficult blow to his constituents. 

"There is a number of our residents who are struggling, who these rates are hitting hard and I feel terrible about it. Which is why I tried to do the best I could where we could still do the work, but gradually phase it in as much as the EPA would allow," Mayor Ritenauer explained. 

While he acknowledged how difficult it is to pay these bills, he seemed surprised to hear some rates were doubling.

"I would have to see their individual circumstances for it to double, the average rate-payer, I don't think it would double, but is up to individual circumstance," he said. 

So where is the money going, and why are the upgrades mandatory? 

"When it rains heavy, all that rainwater goes into the sanitary sewer. Our plant can't keep up, so we have a decision to make: do we process everything and flood the entire system with water and sewage, or do we bypass treatment processes and send it out into Lake Erie, and that's what we have been doing," the mayor said.

According to the mayor, utility rate increases are planned to continue to pay for those improvements for the next 20 years - and current residents are not on board.

"Everyone is talking about selling out and moving," Krasienko said. "Just because of the water bill and the highest rates around."

Paul Wilson, the city's director of utilities, gave News 5 the following information regarding billing and planned increases.

In an email to News 5, Wilson said, "We charge a fixed fee based on the size of the water meter and a variable fee based on consumption. We also provide a discount to elderly and handicapped people who meet our requirements."

Dan Given, the city's director of Public Safety and Service, sent this statement via email in regards to the reporting of this story. 

"We are just as upset that we have had to increase the rates to the effect we have for our residents. These changes were based upon the continuous expensive need to update our water and sewer systems as well as comply with all EPA requirements. Clean water and environmental maintenance is expensive and ultimately in the best interest of all of us. Although costly to us all, the need for these services far outweigh the monthly luxury items like cable TV and cell phones that increase without any accountability."

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