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Smoke and Mirrors

todayJanuary 15, 2022 3

Background

WILMINGTON, OH – Navigating optics to differentiate truth from reality is difficult and disorienting. In most scenarios, the truth comes to a head at some point, yet the challenge to find it can be off-putting; especially when adorned in pretty packaging.

Wilmington, Ohio is amongst the average rural Midwest cities statistically. It is a community bound by residents with small businesses, church families, sports lovers, and more. Property owners do their due diligence when bills come, review their taxes, and mark their calendars for election days.

Every city requires leadership; in this case a Mayor and City Council. Local residents enter polling stations with optimism that upon granting power to City officials (who also appoint Government staff) has a vested interest in the community’s success.

Over time incremental projects to improve the quality of living to arise. City Council passes the final motion on which plans will take effect and how they will be implemented during bi-weekly meetings. Under the Ohio Open Meetings Act:

  1. The general public may be in attendance.
  2. City Council is required to provide accurate Minutes, which “should provide sufficient information to permit the public to understand and appreciate the rationale behind the public body’s decisions”.

These records are to be filed and made available to the general public in a timely fashion. The City of Wilmington has opted to post the documents on their website. However, when one visits the Agenda and Minutes page all files dated 2008-2022 are unavailable.

At this time the only methods to stay informed are to physically attend Council Meetings or read general overviews (written or submitted) after the fact in the local newspaper.

November of 2021, we released an article regarding the Stormwater utility fee the City has implemented. It included educational information on Stormwater and how the 2 piping system the local government proposed would potentially work.

Upon conducting research for the story – red flags were raised concerning the scope of the project and appropriation of funds. Initially the Stormwater program was advertised as an EPA mandated initiative Wilmington must comply with, but would benefit from.

A push to build a larger Wastewater plant in Wilmington was also introduced in October 2020, to fix capacity problems; with a focus on the increased amount of rain water entering the sewer system since its’ original construction. In an effort to tackle both Wastewater and Stormwater management – Water rates were set to increase 2.5% over the next 4 years alongside the newly separated Stormwater fee line item.

Under the previous system Stormwater collection was rolled in with customers’ existing monthly sewer bill – as Wastewater department funds were also responsible for covering Stormwater expenses. City Director of Public Service and Safety, Brian Shidaker went on the record stating: “At best, that was an inappropriate source of funding; The City has needed to correct that situation for a long time.”

In July 2021, the additional Stormwater utility fee was officially instituted.

After four months of questions from the community – Public Works Director, Rick Schaffer released an explanation on Stormwater fees. He opens by reiterating Mr. Shidaker’s remarks on the need to make a separate designation for funding Stormwater collection and what the program entails to him. “Our investment will fix broken and inadequate Stormwater drainage pipes and build new, where appropriate, to slow down water entering our creeks, reducing sediment and pollution”.

Schaffer closes by addressing the need for a larger Wastewater treatment facility, again listing age and capacity limitation as key determining factors while ensuring to note the plant project will be funded by other means.

However, the explanation doesn’t hold water. By definition Stormwater is runoff created by precipitation (mainly rain and snow). Due its natural state it does not require processing at a treatment facility and should be transported directly via a separate Stormwater drainage pipe into a waterway; for example: a creek.

If the initially proposed 2 pipe system were to actually be built, Stormwater would bypass the treatment facility altogether decreasing the need to build a larger plant and opens the door for tax payers to save both money and stress. The system would also open the door for local government officials to stop charging for a program that is not being effectively provided to the community they serve.

But the biggest smokescreen members of the community are faced to decipher is the significant increase in the price for services. If Stormwater collection was previously included under sanitary sewer billing, why has it increased exponentially when it is separated out? According to their own explanation, Sewer fees should have reduced by the same amount as Stormwater fees when the new line item was established.

Instead, since enacting the separated Stormwater fee in August 2021 – The City has already collected over $1.04 million in Stormwater utility funds alone. In addition, they have published plans to increase water rates in 2022; above the 2.5% residents have already taken on.

As the narrative continues to shift the price tag does too. But this isn’t “new” news. Releasing sweeping overviews of information without full explanations is a method commonly practiced in conjunction with the ever evolving projects that take place in The City of Wilmington.

Providing just enough fog to cloud a clear understanding of plans, may prevent one from asking “too many questions”. Surely Smoke and Mirrors can be an effective way to direct others into believing falsehoods about what you’re selling – even if it is bad policy.

No one is asking for perfection. We are simply asking for fairness, transparency, and accountability.

Written by: wzaalpfm

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