The Ohio legislature is currently considering legislation that could effectively eliminate the construction of new sanitary sewer projects in rural areas throughout the state, particularly rural areas heavily impacted by household septic systems.
One of the primary roles of our organization as a 6119 district is to build public sanitary sewer collection systems. County sanitary engineering offices do the same thing, under the auspices of a county commissioner’s office. The purpose of such sanitary collection systems is to protect the health of the area’s residents and to ensure a quality environment.
Typically, new sanitary projects are not built unless there are demonstrably poor environmental conditions in the affected area. Usually, the Ohio EPA will test water quality in an area, often on the basis of a complaint from a local resident. If the tests show problems with contaminated water, the EPA or county health department issues “orders” to build sewers in the area. These orders are a binding legal requirement to the sewer district or sanitary engineer to improve the sanitary conditions in the ordered area.
As with any major infrastructure project, new sanitary sewer systems are expensive to build.
Public infrastructure such as streets, highways, and bridges is typically paid for through dedicated tax levies.
Sewer projects, on the other hand, are almost always paid for through 20-year property tax assessments on the property owners adjoining the new sewer project.
The financing in such cases always includes long-term borrowing for the affected owners. Most often, state or federal grant programs exist that help underwrite the overall project cost. Sometimes, such grants will even pay for the “tap” or connection charges for homes to the new main sewer line!
Nevertheless, there are often significant costs not covered by the grant programs, and these costs are assessed to the adjoining owners’ property taxes.
An important part of the assessment process is that all owners along a given project share in the construction costs (along with any possible grant assistance). For instance, let’s say that a particular sewer project costs $100,000 and there are 20 owners along the route. Each owner will be assessed $5,000 (to be paid over 20 years). However, if only 10 owners participate in the assessment, and the other 10 owners are not assessed, then the 10 remaining owners must each pay $10,000 over the life of the assessment. To keep the per-owner costs of new sanitary projects affordable, it is important that all adjacent owners contribute to the project.
The Ohio legislature is currently discussing important changes in how existing septic systems are treated during the assessment process (HB 58 is one example). The intent of such legislation seems reasonable: to permit homeowners with working septic systems to opt out of paying assessments for new sewer projects.
The danger, however, is that such rules will effectively make new projects unaffordable.
If a large number of adjoining residents with existing septic systems opt out of the assessment process, then assessments for the remaining residents will skyrocket. Area-wide projects with broad participation offer much better opportunities for competitive bidding, economies of scale, and long-term low-interest financing. It is also worth noting that it is almost always failing, poorly maintained, or out-of-date septic systems that lead to the issuance of EPA or health department orders in the first place. Giving owners of septic systems a pass on tying into new sewer projects only compounds the long-term contamination issues.
If our legislators are serious about protecting the streams and waters of the state of Ohio from contamination by household sewage waste, they should consider carefully the real-life impacts of any changes that would reduce participation in new sanitary sewer projects.
This is particularly critical at a time of heightened concern about the nutrient loading in Lake Erie that contributed to last summer’s algae bloom and the resulting water use advisory for the City of Toledo.