Mahoning County Commissioners held a public meeting for residents of Jackson-Milton Metro Water District Thursday, July 7, after a recent announcement that the last water district that is run by the county is up for sale.

Commissioners are seeking public input about the water district that serves around 1,500 homes and businesses in Jackson and Milton townships in Mahoning County. The reason for the meeting is that the water district has fallen approximately $5.5 million in debt, according to Tara Cioffi, Director of Administrative Services for the Mahoning County Sanitary Engineer's Office.

"Our intent with opening this door was to able to find a provider that has thousands of customers that can spread the cost across like we're able to do from a sanitary standpoint," said Mahoning Co. Commissioner David Ditzler.

Residents who spoke at the podium Thursday said they want to stick with their current plan with Jackson-Milton Metro Water District. They know whatever route the commissioners choose, their rates for their water will go up, but they said they're just not interested in Youngstown Water Department or Aqua Ohio.

Ditzler said that the Jackson-Milton Water District has an annual deficit of around $500,000, and with the current $5.5 million deficit, he along with other commissioners looking for options, including a sale to either the Youngstown Water Department, or to Aqua Ohio. Both have submitted proposals to the commissioners to be considered for taking over the water district. Youngstown receives water from the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District which distributes water to the city and to nearby townships. According to Aqua Ohio website, Aqua serves about 500,000 people an average of 40 million gallons of water daily through 36 water systems. Aqua Ohio also treats wastewater through five wastewater treatment plants.

But why didn't the county commissioners raise the water wages to avoid this drastic debt they've known about for more than a decade?

"We raised sanitary rates during those times," Ditzler explained. "We didn't do both at the same time. Sure, you could say 5 years ago, we should have raised the rates somewhat to get to where we need to be today."

Ditzler said the current rates in the Jackson Milton district are about half of the other water suppliers in the area, and that no matter what solution is found, rates will be increased for Jackson and Milton townships. 

Ditzler said rate increases would be less harsh if a sale is approved, as the costs and debt is absorbed by more water users from larger suppliers, rather than dividing up the millions in deficit onto 1,500 current homes or businesses.

"The current system we have out here, has everybody happy as could be due to the fact that the service is fantastic," said Alan Hemphill, Jackson Twp. Trustee. "It's much different than when Youngstown owned the water system."

"If indeed you do decide to sell, we just really want you to consider who you would sell it to," explained Wendy DiBernardi, Milton Twp. Trustee. "Please consider if the quality of the water would remain the same and if the purchaser would indeed make investments in our community."

"By having a dependable water system, our residents enjoy a very good ISO rating, which is the dependability of the water incorporated in the fire system, which helps insurance rates," explained Harold Maynard, Milton Twp. Fire Chief. 

Harry Johnson III, the Youngstown Water Commissioner, said his department submitted a proposal in May to take over the water district for $5 million, and if approved, Jackson Milton customers would pay the inner city resident rate for the first three years, and would move them to the rate for customers outside of the city after that. Johnson said the rates for city residents are $7.54 per 1,000 gallons and $10.55 per 1,000 gallons for customers outside the city. Jackson Milton residents currently $5.25 per 1,000 gallons, according to the city's proposal.

Ditzler said the reason many homeowners don't want to leave the current agreement is because "they're passionate about the service and quality the county is providing them."

"We got the City of Youngstown out of here about 40 years ago," said Paul Wolf, resident of Lake Milton. "We've been a lot better off since that happened. This water is going to need cooperation between commissioners and the community."

Commissioner Ditzler told 21 News everything's still on the table so they could try to work out and agreement with the county. There's no set timeline on if or when a sale could be made.