Despite urgings from Mayor Alice Roth, Tonawanda City Council officials said they are still a few weeks away from deciding the fate of the financially depleted water department.
During Tuesday's meeting of the Council, the mayor read her annual State of the City address and pushed for the Council to turn over the water department to the Erie County Water Authority. The city has been trying for about a year to decide the future of the department, which has posted a debt of $4.5 million.
"Our water plant and distribution system have been studied to death at this point," Roth said. "As much as we hate to admit it, we do not have the capability to continue in the water business. . . . The best decision, both long and short range, is to turn over the entire water system to the Erie County Water Authority."
Council President Carleton Zeisz said that the decision is a few weeks away, but that he hopes to have a conclusion soon. Though he would not confirm that the city is leaning in favor of the ECWA, he said that such a deal would be permanent and that city officials would essentially lose all control over water utilities in Tonawanda.
"Everybody's trying to hold down the fort until the last possible minute," he said. "Once we pass the torch, it's gone."
Zeisz did confirm that residents would pay a higher minimum price for water, an increase of at least $40 annually. Most of the $4.5 million water debt was attributed to water-line repair on several streets as well as inaccurate meter readings.
"Under our current situation, people are going to pay more," Zeisz said. "We do know that the majority of the meters are not accurate. We're trying to put the city in a situation where we're competitive. We're not competitive now.
"There's a time when you have to know when to move on."
However, the city may see financial advantages to farming out its water distribution. Roth said the city might receive better interest rates on bonds once the issue is settled, and the city expects to recoup the debt through the raised water rates.
Roth also touched on other issues in her report. She said that although the city is in debt, it is holding the line on spending. Much of the debt was incurred by essential capital projects such as street repair.
"We had major projects to pay for, and this was not the time to spend on non-essentials," she said. "It would be similar to a family purchasing a home that suddenly has a $100,000 mortgage and new-furniture payments. This would not be the time for them to take a cruise if it put them further in debt.
"We have accomplished a great deal in restoring our city facilities and in improving and streamlining our operations."