Mayor Starr speaks out against proposed sewer rate hike

Sewer Board Member Calls For
One-Year Delay of $3 Billion Rate Hike

Contact: Mayor Gary Starr, Member, Northeast Ohio Sewer District Board of Trustees. 440-234-8811

Middleburg Heights Mayor Gary Starr, calling the proposed $3 billion Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District rate hike “monstrous and job-killing,” wants a one-year delay so area governments can analyze its potential impact on the local economy.

Starr, a 17-year member of the sewer board representing 39 suburbs, said the proposal, set for a Nov. 18th vote, would raise rates averaging 18 per cent a year for at least 20 years, with the largest hits coming before 2014, according to District officials. He is rallying other government leaders to help him spread the message:
“Is the price too high for a region reeling from poverty, unemployment, foreclosures and an exodus of residents and businesses?”

“They (the U.S. Government) say families can afford higher rates because household incomes will increase 4 per cent a year. Tell that to the legions of unemployed workers or retirees whose pensions have been frozen for two years.”

Akron, facing a similar unfunded mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has chosen to battle the federal government in court because of the steep price tag, Starr added.

“This would be an unvoted tax increase for quite possibly the largest capital project in Ohio ever,” Starr said.

The federal government is demanding a cleaner Lake Erie, he continued, so it should pay for an overhaul of the sewer system, not the struggling Northeast Ohio residents.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mayor Gary Starr of Middleburg Heights Files Suit

Mayor Gary Starr of Middleburg Heights has filed a lawsuit (11 CV 341) in Federal Court in Cleveland today, Thursday, February 17, 2011.

Mayor Starr, who is also on the Board of Trustees of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, named the Sewer Board and several individuals as defendants and has asked a federal judge to prohibit the Sewer Board from taking any disciplinary action against him at the Sewer Board meeting this afternoon, Thursday, February 17, 2011. A hearing is being set today.

Mayor Starr’s First Amendment/Due Process lawsuit alleges that the Sewer Board is about to discipline him in retaliation for Mayor Starr’s whistle blowing and his outspoken opposition to Sewer Board policies, including the imminent passage of a $3 billion sewer rate increase.

Ken Myers, noted First Amendment lawyer, is representing Mayor Starr and has filed the lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order. Mr. Myers will attend the Sewer Board meeting at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, February 17, 2011, at 3900 Euclid Ave. Mayor Starr will accompany Mr. Myers to court and will also attend the Sewer Board meeting.

By Gary Starr

Mayor, Middleburg Heights,
Member of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer Board of Trustees
Representing 39 Cleveland suburbs

Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District officials are preparing to fast-track a $3 billion project–the most costly initiative ever in Northern Ohio–despite serious questions about affordability and process.

One million customers will have only two weeks to peek at the six-inch stack of highly technical documents that detail how yearly sewer rates will skyrocket from an annual average of $360 a year to nearly $1,000 in four years. It is scheduled for passage November 18, 2010.

In sharp contrast, the Sewer District opted for much more democracy and openness for the new fee of $57 a year for storm water runoff. In that particular case, District officials held 206 meetings with cities, public and private agencies and churches over two years.

And the Sewer District was still sued.

On October 2, 2010, the Plain Dealer quoted District officials as saying sewer bills will begin increasing an average of 18% each year beginning in 2012…for the next 20 years or more.

District officials assume families can afford higher rates because household incomes will increase roughly 4 per cent a year. Tell that to the legions of unemployed workers or retirees whose pensions have been frozen for two years.

For apartment dwellers, this means higher rents.

For business owners, large and small, it means more job-killing financial hardships.

I am not questioning the lofty goal of further cleaning up our rivers and Lake Erie. Since the sewer district was formed in 1972, we have reduced the dumping of raw sewage in half.

Yes, the water pollution level is unacceptable.

But, is the price too high for a region reeling from poverty, unemployment, foreclosures and an exodus of residents and businesses?

I also question the secretive process.

Details of the rate deal are contained in a 47-page tentative agreement crafted over eight years by lawyers for the U.S Environment Protection Agency and district lawyers–including the former chief counsel who is headed to prison for bribery.

Despite the deafening clamor for more transparency in government, lawyers refuse to share the agreement with board members and the public until a vote on the rate hike under the guise of attorney-client privilege. I argue the true client is the public.

There are other concerns.

1. District officials have secretly agreed–in your name–to a $2 million fine, despite your nearly $1 billion investment in cleaner water and numerous performance awards, even from the federal EPA.

2. Akron, also citing affordability, is fighting the EPA in court. Why are sewer district officials here so eager to surrender to the feds?

3. A district rate study is not even completed. Residents need a cost-benefit analysis before shelling out billions of dollars. Just how much cleaner will waterways be $3 billion later?

4. Is Northeast Ohio entitled to a share of the federal stimulus funds?

Water pollution is a nationwide crisis. The National Association of Clean Water agencies reported to the Plain Dealer (October 2) that hundreds of U.S. cities face the same headaches.

This pollution happens when raw sewage escapes into waterways, usually during periods of heavy rain. Torrents of storm water and sewage mix in the same pipes during downpours, overload treatment plants, and flush into Lake Erie.

Should not federal government pay for a larger share instead of coldly threatening a recession-wracked region with legal action?

I oppose this rush to judgment on what amounts to a monster, unvoted tax hike.

Alleged “Confidential” documents should immediately be made public. I would like to see the entire 47-page agreement posted on the Sewer District’s website.

I call for a year-long moratorium to give elected officials and their constituents time to weigh the proposed rate hike against the possible crushing impact on our local rate payers.

Mayors and councils are certain to be deluged with protests.

The Cuyahoga County corruption scandal–which has also tarnished the sewer district– and the federal mid-term elections, should drive home the lesson that public demands greater transparency and accountability.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District needs to demonstrate beyond a doubt that it understands the importance of the court of public opinion as well as the court of law.

Mayor looks ahead to Middleburg Heights in 2020

“Middleburg Heights over the last 30 years has seen unparalleled positive growth and prosperity,” says Mayor Gary Starr. “It’s been extraordinary how we’ve been ‘put on the map’ and how people recognize us for our excellence.”

Starr cites careful planning by civic leaders as a key reason for the City’s past success.

And now he’s working on a plan for the future.

“This new plan for the City is called ‘Middleburg Heights 2020,’ ” says Starr. “It’s a clear vision of what the City should look like in 10 years.”

The plan will focus on 20 new initiatives and projects to be completed by the year 2020.

Although the process is still in its initial idea-gathering stages, some of the ideas being discussed are:

  • Development of “Middleburg Commons,” a new central park and public-use space at the site of the old C.A. Thomas Elementary School at Craigmere Drive and Bagley Road
  • Re-development of the retail center at Smith and Sheldon Roads
  • Construction of a new library at Craigmere Drive and Bagley Road
  • A new commerce park development across the street from Englewood Industrial Park
  • A new Senior Center activities building

The ideas have come from a variety of sources inside and outside city government.

“These are collaborations,” says Starr. “Some of these came from taxpayers at the supermarket… a city councilman mentioned a dog park to me. Let’s put everything on the table; it’s worthy of discussion and debate.”

Starr says city council members, staff at City Hall, members of the public, and the business community will collectively sit down and prioritize important projects and programs.

The mayor notes that, like private business, a city benefits from strategic planning and that Middleburg Heights has been successful because of previous planning efforts.

“We did it in the mid to late 1990s, and I characterized it as ‘Middleburg 2000’ ” he explains. “With that we built the nationally acclaimed, award-winning community center and the $8 million service garage on Engle Road; we widened Engle Road – over a $1 million improvement to our ‘commerce corridor’ – plus we added more firemen and policemen.”

Although planning for new projects is useful, it requires an equally important component: the money to pay for them.

The mayor is already on the case. “I also want to underscore that not only are we listing the projects, we’re also coming up with ways to fund them,” he notes.