By Kevin Kelley
At a public meeting attended by about 240 people Wednesday night, Mayor Dennis Clough repeatedly said Westlake will not switch water suppliers if the result is higher costs to residents.
Clough scheduled the meeting, held at the Westlake Recreation Center, after the city of Cleveland mailed Westlake residents a letter last week stating they would be charged nearly $300 a quarter for the suburb’s decision to leave its water system. Clough said his city has not reached any decision on leaving the system.
“We’re not going to make a decision that’s going to make you or anyone in our community have to pay more,” Clough told attendees of the meeting, which lasted just over 90 minutes.
Westlake has been exploring the option of purchasing water from Avon Lake Municipal Utilities for several years. Clough has said he believes ALMU can provide Westlake residents with water at cheaper rates and with better customer service, and consultants’ studies paid for by Westlake agree. After Cleveland claimed Westlake would be liable for nearly $60 million dollars in charges associated with separating from its water system, the suburb filed a motion in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for a declaratory judgement on what exactly the agreement between the two communities states. The matter is currently before Judge Michael Astrab.
According to Westlake Law Director John Wheeler, the judge on Monday told attorneys from both Westlake and Cleveland not to try the dispute in the media.
Clough essentially acknowledged that the court’s decision could be the deciding factor in what Westlake ends up doing with regard to its water supplier.
Clough said he did not believe Westlake residents will be forced to pay the additional charges claimed Cleveland’s Division of Water. Noting that the matter is before both Cleveland City Council and the court, Clough said Westlake officials will do everything possible to ensure the proposed billing is not enforced. The mayor noted that in the past communities in Lake County have exited the Cleveland Water system without having to pay any penalties.
Clough said Westlake has spent roughly $170,000 to date on legal fees related to a possible switch of water suppliers. The total dollar amount grows to about $400,000 when the fees of engineering and financial consultants are included, he said.
Cleveland’s current agreement with Cleveland Water expires in March 2015. A new agreement proposed by Cleveland would have the suburb hand over ownership of all its distribution lines to the larger city in exchange for increased maintenance. Clough called this proposed agreement “not acceptable,” explaining that Westlake has invested too much money in the water line infrastructure and that Cleveland cannot do as good a job at maintaining that infrastructure. Clough, however, has not ruled out purchasing water in bulk from Cleveland and has sought quotes from the city for such an arrangement.
The mood of the residents in the audience seemed to be mixed. Some, likely alarmed at the prospect of having to pay nearly $1,200 annually in additional water fees, seemed skeptical when asking questions of the mayor. Others seemed supportive of Westlake leaders’ efforts to stand up to the main city’s water utility. Asked by one resident if Cleveland Water’s service to customers has improved since Westlake began exploring other water options, Clough responded strongly, “Unequivocally, yes!”
One audience member’s call for Westlake to negotiate a resolution with Cleveland was met with a smattering of applause. However, when the mayor concluded, the majority of audience members who remained for the entire meeting applauded.