ST. CLAIRSVILLE -- On Wednesday, June 7, the Belmont County Board of Commissioners finalized an increase to water and sewer rates to fund a needed $43.7 million upgrade to the existing system.

In a release sent last week, the Commissioners said they, as well as the Ohio and U.S. EPA, "have an obligation to all citizens of the county to provide a safe and reliable water supply and sanitary disposal system. The proposed systems improvement program that the county is currently undertaking is necessary to meet that obligation".

Belmont County retained the services of AECOM, a nationally recognized engineering firm, to prepare a Systemwide Water/Wastewater Master Plan and retained the services of Ohio Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP) to prepare a Utility Rate Analysis. The Water/Wastewater Master Plan was completed in June 2016 and the Utility Rate Analysis was completed in April 2017. The Master Plan identified numerous needed improvements that were long overdue.

Concurrently, the county evaluated various sources of funding (grants, low interest loans, etc.) in order to pay for the required improvements to their systems. After several meetings with various agencies, it was determined that the greatest benefit to the County was financing the program through United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) loans. The loans being considered offer very low fixed rates over a 40-year payback term and permitted the county to refinance the existing debt at an annual cost savings. The interest rate and terms are the most favorable that have been offered in the last 30 years and we expect it to become less favorable in the future as interest rates increase and the term is decreased. In order to secure the current financing terms, the county intends to submit its funding application no later than June 30, 2017.

The Proposed Systems Improvement Program, as recommended by the Preliminary Engineering Reports includes the following projects: replacement of water metering reading system; replacement of the 1965 water treatment plant; replacement of the SR 9 water booster station; replacement of the homeside 12-inch water transmission main; water systems SCADA (communications) upgrade; Fox Shannon wastewater treatment plant improvements; replacement of several wastewater lift stations.

With the assistance of the Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP) in preparation of the Utility Rate Analysis, the county assimilated data relative to the customer base, historical operating costs, usage/discharge rates, operation and maintenance practices, capital improvement needs, etc., The initial findings of the rate analysis were that the BCSSD was not adequately funding operating costs, short life equipment replacement and preventative maintenance; all resulting in deterioration of the collection/distribution systems, pump stations, and the treatment systems.

RCAP developed annual operating budgets and capital improvements budgets reflecting the actual costs, good practices, and the recommendations from the water/wastewater preliminary engineering reports. These budgets provided the foundation for the needed utility rates.

Along with the utility rate recommendation, it was recommended that the county consolidate all water districts into a single water district an all sanitary districts into a single sanitary district. The county also took this opportunity to update the 1964/1972 Water and Sanitary Sewer Use Regulations to current best practices of similar counties in Ohio.

In the release, commissioners said the implementation of these recommendations "will significantly moved Belmont County forward as our county grows and propers. The projected rates are in line with other counties and utilities that have also made major, much needed improvements. By proceeding with this plan of action and taking advantage of this very favorable opportunity, Belmont County will now be able to meet its water and wastewater obligations."

Current monthly sanitary sewer rates are a minimum $9 to be connected to the system, with an additional $5.75 for every 1,000 gallons treated. The minimum bill will increase to $25 per month in 2018 with the additional $5.75 for every 1,000 gallons treated. In 2019, the minimum bill will increase to $35 per month and $6 for every 1,000 gallons treated. An average monthly bill based on 4,500 gallons of usage is expected to increase from $34.88 to $62 between now and 2019.

Current monthly water rates are $8 per month with an additional $4.58 for each 1,000 gallons. They will increase to $13 per month in 2018 plus $4.93 for each 1,000 gallons and in 2019 the minimum monthly bill would be $20 plus $5.71 for each 1,000 gallons.

Currently the minimum usage is based on 3,000 gallons of usage.

Under the new rate structure the minimum charge will not be based on usage, instead a charge will be added for very 1,000 gallons used.

Commissioner Josh Meyer said the massive project, and resulting rate increase, represents the only option.

"It's a vital thing that needs to be done," he said. "Water is one of the cheapest commodities we'll ever get into our house, and it's a vital need. We are upgrading a system that has been neglected for years and we are setting into place a course of action that will not only impact the system now but for years to come."

Commissioner J.P. Dutton agreed that the project was necessary in the interest of safety and health.

"This issue is one of the more significant our county has faced in recent memory due to its complexity and its cost, not to mention its potential impact on public health and future development. For years, the system has been increasingly stressed due to lingering debt and a lack of a long term solution. This path was not sustainable. As many have seen, water systems across the nation are struggling which can sometimes unfortunately lead to very serious problems. In our case, this solution is not once that is piece meal or short term, as this is not a short term problem. The solution is one that will have long lasting impacts. We cannot move forward as a community without addressing major legacy issues. Economic development is affected by this in terms of being certain that our water and sewer system is better prepared to support upcoming opportunities for growth," Dutton said, adding that functioning infrastructure will be vital to future economic development. "I encourage any resident with questions, particularly those that are county customers, to please contact our office."

We have good, safe drinking water today," Commission President Mark Thomas said. "We want to take it to the next level and that's what we're going to do ... when you turn that faucet on, there's a cost associated not only with the use of that water, but the repair, maintenance and upgrade. That's important for our residents to understand, and the same goes for our sanitary sewer users. This is a huge system in a huge county."

Thomas said the county will take existing debt at interest rates of 3-5 percent and roll it into the loan at reduced rates. He said although the water and sewer rates will increase, the county taxpayers will also save money through reduced interest rates. The debt payment savings annually are estimated at $534,000. Moreover, many residents who use the minimum water and/or sewer per month will see minimal, if any, impact to their rates, he added.

"In the end, all of these repairs and upgrades are required/necessary for our residents to continue to have safe, reliable and plentiful drinking water. While these costs have to be absorbed by many residents, we need them to understand that it will take a lot of money for all of these upgrades," Thomas said.

He added that the commissioners and sanitary sewer department pledge to be accessible to the public to listen and answer questions.

For further information you may contact the Belmont County Commissioners' Office at (740) 699-2155.