By Kevin Kelley
Concluding that a switch of water supplier will lead to lower residential rates and new funding for infrastructure replacement, Westlake City Council has taken the next step to switching water suppliers.
In two separate votes earlier this month, City Council voted unanimously to authorize the mayor to begin negotiations with Avon Lake Municipal Utilities regarding the purchase of water. Westlake residents and businesses currently are supplied by the city of Cleveland’s Division of Water. The resolutions approved by council also authorize the city to hire a consultant to prepare specifications for construction work necessary to make the switch.
Westlake officials have been studying a possible switch of water suppliers since 2007. Rising water rates, Cleveland’s limited ability to invest in maintenance of the water system, and poor service in response to line breaks are reasons behind a possible switch.
At a Nov. 15 council committee meeting, Ward 5 Councilman Ken Brady said Westlake could do a better job than Cleveland Water at servicing the city’s residents.
“It would, I think, be difficult to do a worse job,” Brady said, referring to numerous problems the city has experienced in getting line breaks repaired in a timely manner.
A study by the engineering firm HNTB Ohio recommends that Westlake move forward in the process of switching suppliers.
HNTB estimated the cost of such a switch to be $17.7 million. However, that cost could rise to around $19 million after two additional costs are factored in. First, the HNTB study called for a one-million-gallon underground water storage tank for system equalization and supply of water during periods of high demand. However, city officials said they want either two million-gallon tanks or a single two-million-gallon tank as a contingency due to the fact that the plan calls for just one transmission line into Westlake from Avon Lake Municipal Utilities.
City Engineer Bob Kelly told council it’s not a bad practice to have a single transmission line, but it’s ideal to have two supply lines.
After looking at various options, HTNB concluded the main transmission pipe would connect the Avon Lake system to Westlake along Schwartz Road. The Schwartz Road option would be the least disruptive to traffic, provide better water pressure and be the least costly option, officials said.
A second factor, which could increase the cost of the switch by $500,000, would be a remote meter reading system that would eliminate the need for workers to visit homes to check water meters. In any case, water meters in Westlake residences will have to be replaced if a supplier switch is made.
One main benefit to a switch would be a lower monthly water charge to residents.
Matt Sduczynski, a financial consultant hired by the city to analyze the pros and cons of a switch, said the working assumption is that switching suppliers could provide residents with water service at a rate that’s 12 percent below what Cleveland Water will charge.
Finance Director Prahsant Shah noted the plan would pay off the $17.7 million debt created by a switch in 20 years, which he called a relatively aggressive repayment plan.
Sduczynsk added that a variety of financial risks would be involved in a switch, including possible litigation fees, the risk of interest rate increases and greater-than-expected capital costs.
Council President Michael Killeen also noted that the financial analysis was based entirely on residential rates, not commercial rates.
Killeen pointed out that a switch would provide the city a source of revenue — monthly water fees — that would be used to replace aging water pipes. Currently, the city funds most water line replacements out of its general fund.
The city of Cleveland has proposed a plan where Cleveland Water would invest in infrastructure repairs if municipalities such as Westlake hand over the water pipes they own. But Westlake city officials have said the amount Cleveland proposes to spend on repairs — $10 million per year across its entire system — will be of little benefit to Westlake.
“We’re going to have to replace those lines no matter who the water supplier is,” Killeen said, adding that the money Cleveland has proposed is inadequate for Westlake’s infrastructure needs. “If we do it ourselves, we’ve got enough revenue here (from a Westlake water system supplied by Avon Lake Municipal Utilities) to continue a very aggressive replacement program.
“(Switching suppliers) generates an ability to maintain and upgrade the system continuously at a lower cost to our system,” Killeen said.
The biggest concern officials have is possible damage to the existing pipes caused by a sudden change in water pressure, Kelly said.
“That’s probably the biggest unknown today,” the city engineer said.
“You could have a considerable amount of water main breaks initially once you (switch systems),” Kelly said.
Pipes can develop a “memory” during years of conducting water at a certain pressure, Kelly explained. If the pressure is suddenly changed, pipes — especially older ones — could break, he said.
If a switch of suppliers is made, Kelly said he would recommend all homes have regulator valves installed to control pressure. Most newer homes already have such regulators, he added.
Some areas of the city have previously experienced pressure changes, sometimes by accident when some valves were mistakenly left open, without significant breaks, Kelly said.
The second big concern, Kelly said, would be how to manage a switch of suppliers in a way that minimizes sudden pressure changes.
“You could do it fast and furious, but it would be nice to do it slow and gentle,” Kelly said.
The switch of suppliers is also complicated by the fact that Westlake owns all water lines 16 inches in diameter and smaller. Cleveland Water owns, and will continue to control, those pipes with a diameters of 20 inches or larger. More than 50 disconnections between the two systems would be required if a switch is made, according to the HTNB study.
Kelly acknowledged that the HTNB study did not look at how a Westlake switch of suppliers would affect surrounding communities. Mayor Dennis Clough said answers about whether a switch would adversely affect neighboring cities would have to come from Cleveland Water.