Prairie Township residents told officials at an April 19 town-hall meeting that when it comes to water and sewer rates, they are the "stepchildren" of Franklin County.
About 100 residents attended the event to relay their concerns and hear from representatives from the Franklin County commissioners' and sanitary engineering offices.
Township trustees Chairman Steve Kennedy said the meeting was a step in the right direction.
"There are some doors opening," he said.
Commissioner Kevin Boyce said water rates in the county are becoming a "quality of life" issue.
"There's not a week that goes by that we don't talk about water and sewer rates," he said. "There's no silver bullet; there's no magic wand here. I promise you, this will not be the last time you see us."
Prairie Township trustees have said they, too, often hear complaints about water bills, but because they have no say about the county's water and sewer system, they also have no say in the rates charged.
Franklin County charges about $5.87 per CCF (centum cubic foot) for water and about $8.14 per CCF for sewer services. That's on top of quarterly base rates of $52 for sewer service and $53.48 for water.
One cubic foot (CF) equals 7.48 gallons, and 100 cubic feet (CCF) equals 748 gallons.
The county's average quarterly residential usage is about 19 CCFs of water, with an average bill for both sewer and water totaling $371.67.
A household in the city of Columbus using 20 CCFs per quarter would have an average quarterly bill of about $205.09. In Grove City, the average bill is $233.32, and in Hilliard, it's $249.07, according to 2018 residential figures supplied by the city of Columbus.
Franklin County, like most area suburbs, buys its water from the city but is responsible for other costs, including maintenance.
Township resident Nicole Alfred told officials she often must choose between bathing her children or putting food on the table.
"This is not the first meeting that we've sat in," she said. "We can't talk any more. It's coming out of our pockets, not out of yours.
"That's reality here," she said of the costs for water and sewer service. "It's not reality in Hilliard or Dublin, but it's reality here."
In 2012, the county increased its water rates by 30 percent and sewer rates by 9 percent to help pay for years of neglected maintenance. Since then, county commissioners have generally passed along rate increases from Columbus.
John S. Griffith is a township resident and owner of Griffith Home Maintenance. He said the water rates are "devastating" for many of the tenants in his rentals.
"The bills are almost always double," he said.
A 2014 study conducted by Raftelis Financial Consultants Inc. found that Franklin County has an "atypical operating and maintenance environment, significant capital pressures and a customer base with limited expectations for growth.
"The combined impact of these issues results in increases to customer rates and charges at a rate that may be untenable, given the current level of rates and charges and existing customer base," the study said.
It also detailed an estimated $100 million in capital improvements needed over the next 10 years to replace aging infrastructure that contributes to the county's "ungodly rates," said Stephen Renner, the township's director of sanitary engineering.
The county has spent about $9.5 million since 2011 to help offset what would have otherwise been higher rate increases, he said.
Its system serves about 6,000 Franklin County residents, about 3,800 of whom live in the township, which has a population of about 17,000.
The rest of the township is served by Columbus, one of its suburbs or a private company, including Aqua Ohio.
"The county system is, excuse the pun, literally a drop in the bucket," Renner said.
Most communities in Ohio are served by countywide systems, Renner said, calling Franklin County's setup "unlike any other in Ohio."
Study and talks
The city of Columbus "has agreed to sit down and talk to us about how we might be able to partner," said Erik Janas, deputy county administrator. "We don't yet know what might work. We are very grateful that they are even willing to sit down and talk with us about it."
Janas said the county plans to conduct a study of the system that will include sending cameras through sewer and water lines as well as an analysis of possible options -- for instance, tying into the Columbus system.
The study could take up to a year to complete, he said, although county commissioners are expected to vote on a resolution to request bids for the study in the coming weeks.
"We're going to do our best to try and hold the line on rates," Janas said. "We're committed to figuring out a solution so that in the long term, you can have rates that are more reasonable."
State Rep. Laura Lanese (R-Grove City) said constituents in the 23rd District, which includes Grove City, Jackson Township, Urbancrest and portions of Hilliard, Norwich Township, Prairie Township, Franklin Township and Columbus, have showed her bills that are three times higher than their Columbus neighbors.
She has co-sponsored H.B. 602 that, if passed, could provide some relief.
Lanese said it would require equal rates for service territories and prohibit annexation as a condition of providing service.
It's modeled after the Fair Water and Pricing Act, which passed both the Ohio House and Senate in 2017 as part of the state's biennial budget, but was line-item vetoed by Gov. John Kasich.
"The bill is No. 602; that means there are 600 bills in front of it," Lanese said.
"We are working hard on it. We're trying to use the resources that we have at the state level."
For more information on the county's bill assistance program visit cleanwater.franklincountyohio.gov/ or call 614-525-3940.