By Kevin Kelley
An ordinance that authorizes Mayor Dennis Clough to extend Westlake’s current water service agreement with the city of Cleveland’s Division of Water was introduced at Thursday’s regular meeting of Westlake City Council. But the move is not an indication that the two municipalities are anywhere close to resolving their dispute about water service.
Council President Mike Killeen told West Life that an extension of the current water agreement is only one of several options the suburb is considering.
“I think it makes it clear that we’re considering that alternative among many other alternatives,” the council president said.
The proposed ordinance was given the first of three customary readings at Thursday’s meeting, meaning no vote on the proposal was taken. In fact, as the ordinance stands now, a yet-to-be-filled-in blank exists in the document indicating the length of time the current water service agreement would be extended.
For several years, Westlake has been considering a switch of water suppliers from Cleveland’s Division of Water to Avon Lake Municipal Utilities. Cleveland Water officials have said the suburb would be liable for tens of millions of dollars in costs associated with the city leaving its system. On Sept. 30, Cleveland sent a letter to its residential water customers in Westlake stating they would be charged nearly $300 a quarter starting in 2014 for such costs. Commercial water customers would be charged even more.
On Oct. 16, Clough and Cleveland Water officials appeared before the Public Utilities Committee of Cleveland City Council, which is considering a proposed ordinance that would charge Westlakers the additional $300 quarterly fee. Both sides repeated their differing interpretations of the current water agreement. Although committee Chairman Terrell Pruitt convinced both sides to have their engineers meet on possible solutions, each side appeared entrenched in its view.
The committee meeting began with members of Arcadis, Cleveland Water’s engineering consultants, detailing the $58.8 million in costs a departure by Westlake would entail. Because the system includes 65 interconnected points between Westlake and the rest of the water system, simply maintaining service to Westlake’s neighboring communities would require $19 million in maintenance work over a five-year period, they said.
Clough said the Westlake city charter does not permit any franchise agreement in excess of 25 years. The 1990 ordinance that established the current water service agreement with Cleveland was for exactly 25 years, he added.
“I can’t buy any more water after the 25 years,” Clough said. “The charter doesn’t allow me to go forward with that. And my city council has not allowed me to do that.”
Clough said the May 2 letter he sent to Cleveland’s Director of Public Utilities, Paul Bender, which Cleveland officials have interpreted as a termination notice, was simply informing them of when the current agreement expires. Calling the letter a termination notice is “absolutely and categorically false,” Clough told council members.
Bender and other Cleveland officials, who were in attendance at the same meeting, were unconvinced and continued to staunchly maintain the May 2 letter was a termination notice.
Clough noted the current water service agreement requires any termination notice be sent via certified mail, which he said was not done with his May 2 letter. After the meeting, Bender told West Life he did not know if the letter had been sent via certified mail, but said Cleveland’s attorneys have “zero doubt” that the letter was a termination notice.
Clough said Westlake began looking for other water suppliers after letters from Cleveland officials kept pushing a new water service agreement that calls for suburbs to transfer ownership to Cleveland of the water pipes they currently own.
“We have spent $32 million since 1995 upgrading our waterlines and replacing our waterlines because the city of Cleveland was not obligated to replace any of these,” Clough said.
“I think that has saved millions of dollars to the city of Cleveland on projected repairs and patches that would have occurred had we not replaced those waterlines over the years,” Clough added.
Cleveland officials and council members responded that the new agreement Cleveland sought was not mandatory and that Westlake and other suburbs can continue as water customers under the existing agreement.
Questioning by Cleveland councilmen began cordially, with Michael Polensek rhetorically asking how Westlake and Cleveland arrived at loggerheads.
“We want Westlake to remain a customer of the Cleveland Division of Water,” Polensek said.
But other councilmen made clear they do not want Cleveland residents or other Cleveland Water customers to pay for costs associated with a departure by Westlake. Councilman Zach Reid asked if Westlake was seeking to use Cleveland Water’s assets and infrastructure for free.
“Your people can afford, I believe as rich as you are, you brag about how rich Westlake is,” Reid told Clough before being stopped by the committee chairman. Clough gestured as if to signal a “time out” upon Reid’s comments.
Clough said Westlake has not closed the door on being a customer of Cleveland Water. The mayor would like Westlake to become a “master meter” customer, an arrangement in which the suburb sets up its own water department and purchases water in bulk from Cleveland. Clough said Cleveland officials have not responded to requests for a master meter proposal. Cleveland officials said they have not received necessary information from Westlake on such a proposal.
At Pruitt’s urging, engineers from both sides will meet about the master meter issue Thursday.
Due to a previous commitment, Clough and other Westlake officials left three hours into the nearly four-hour afternoon meeting. After the mayor left, Cleveland Chief Operating Officer Darnell Brown said Westlake has sought different water arrangements over time, ranging from a complete separation to buying water from both Avon Lake and Cleveland. The latter option was not on the table, Brown said. While Cleveland was open to a master meter relationship with Westlake, such an arrangement would result in significant infrastructure costs that would have to be paid for by Westlake, Brown said.
After initially speaking in favor of the proposal to charge Westlake residents the additional quarterly fee, Cleveland Councilman Jeffrey Johnson said a delay to allow the engineers to talk might allow Clough to save face after failing to realize what a supplier switch might cost his residents. Johnson said Westlake should not be allowed to use council to negotiate a “sweetheart deal.”
Cleveland City Council’s Public Utilities Committee is scheduled to meet again on Oct. 30 to further consider the proposed ordinance.