District 3 councilman Mike Craig joined 10 colleagues Tuesday in overriding Mayor Michael Bell’s veto, effectively stopping a $700,000 appropriation to purchase and destroy homes for the expansion of Toledo’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant.
The $314 million expansion was mandated by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and has to be completed within five years. Mayor Bell’s public information director, Jennifer Sorgenfrei, stressed that the EPA report was “quite lengthy” and it dictates what must happen at the plant.
The city had contacted 28 homeowners to see if they would be willing to sell their property to make room for the $300 million construction project and expansion in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood. The city was looking for two separate groups of four contingent properties to make room for two new substations and staging areas for construction.
David Welch, director of public utilities, said several homeowners had already agreed to sell, but the city failed to find a string of four homes to make room for the project. Jamie Miller, a realty specialist with the city, said they were close to reaching agreements with other homeowners.
City council had originally authorized the $700,000 for the purchase of the homes, but at-large Councilman Shaun Enright, an East Toledo resident, led legislation to rescind the authorization, which was approved by an 8-4 vote.
After Bell’s veto, council voted 11-1 to override with Tom Wasniewski dissenting. Craig, representing East Toledo and part of the Old South End, was originally one of the four voting against rescinding the authorization. By voting to override Tuesday, he effectively voted to rescind.
His original intentions when voting to support the authorization — he would rather see property owners willingly sell than see the city to take the properties by eminent domain. Now, he’s worried that will ultimately happen.
“I didn’t change my mind on the situation,” Craig said. As a matter of fact, I thought Tom was going to vote for (approving the appropriation). You know what — I don’t think anything good is going to come of this. They need more of the property over there and they are going to have to get it, and this council is going to have to vote for it. All they are doing is putting off the inevitable.
“Look, (East Toledo Family Center community builder) Jodi Gross wrote me an email trying to remind me who I represent. There are 40 people over there who are upset. I’ve got 47,996 people and every one of those will be mad if something goes wrong with that water plant.”
Fresh water for 50,000
Craig believes residents misunderstood their options.
Some homeowners said they think the price offered was not fair and others said they had no intention of leaving a neighborhood they lived in their entire lives.
“I did talk to the residents the night before (a council meeting) at a community meeting,” Craig said. “The one woman who said she could always find a house that didn’t have a kitchen sink (like she does) for the price — that is not what the city is offering. If they appraise your house and they say it’s worth $40,000, they will go out and find a similar home for you, and a similar home does not mean one without a kitchen sink. If they find a similar home and it’s $55,000, they pay the difference and they give you up to $25,000 moving costs for relocation expenses.
“They are going to need three to five more properties to put in a substation, and that would be Toledo’s substation. The substation needs to go in a specific spot. They (residents) want to know what the plans are exactly. Well, you know what, when (the city) comes to you and it’s your piece of property and says, ‘How willing are you to sell now?’, they were trying to delay things and they didn’t want to paint themselves in a corner where they were going to have to say, ‘We need to take the property.’ Now, they are painting us into that corner and they are going to force the city to use the ‘E.D.’ word.”
Before the veto, Bell said the city had no intention to use eminent domain if homeowners sell willingly.
“We are negotiating with willing sellers and have never brought up the issue of eminent domain,” Bell said. “We are sensitive to the notion that these are homes for the residents, not just houses. But this is a project that is essential for Toledo’s future. In order to comply with the EPA mandates we will have to expand the facilities at the Collins Park plant which will require expanding the plant footprint. It’s been a long-term problem that affects the entire city, we’re just trying to fix it.”
Craig said of the 28 homeowners, nearly half, 13, were in negotiations. Now, all negotiations have stopped. Craig said had they continued, he would make arrangements for an East Toledo appraisal firm to represent potential sellers free of charge.
“I would be perfectly willing to get involved if we didn’t think the city was giving them a fair shake on their property, if I could. I have to represent my whole district, we’ll say 50,000. I don’t care if it is their home, when you’re talking about fresh water for the needs of 50,000 take precedent over the needs of those five. I would be willing to go to bat for those five to make sure they were just compensated,” Craig said.
“It’s not that I don’t care about what happens to those people — I do. It’s that I also care about what happens to everyone in my district. I don’t just represent Collins Park Boulevard. I have people by Highland Park, so that there are people, when they turn on their faucet, they have water they can drink.”
Lack of communication
At a council meeting of the whole last week, Enright said part of the problem was the lack of communication — the first time property owners were aware of this was when the homeowners received a letter from the city asking if they would sell.
Enright suggested there should have been more communication beforehand, and he directed his question right at Welch and his staff.
“I want to talk about two reasons why we are here — one is lack of communication from you and two is lack of respect for the citizens of this neighborhood,” Enright said. “We understand that nobody is opposed to the expansion of the water plant, so I don’t think excuses should be made here to destroy people’s livelihoods. How many testimonies have you heard from people not wanting to leave their houses. It’s easy to sit back, but if you happened in your neighborhood, what would you do? You’d fight like hell like they are. So put yourself in their shoes.”
Welch responded, “I think part of the problem is, we are communicating, but they (residents) are not hearing the answers they want to hear. I’ve been very truthful on why we are doing it and why we are going ahead with this. I never said we were going to do this or do that and then changed my mind.
“I did say when (engineers) brought us some other options, they sounded like good options and I brought it back to my staff. I consulted with the law, with real estate, and some other folks, and I interred it was not a good option at the time. I’m responsible for this water plant. I’m responsible for the $300 million worth of construction that has to go ahead. I have a responsibility to do the best we can — believe me I would not want to disrupt the neighborhood. But I still have to get this construction done.
“But I’m telling you what —I f you look at the plan today, there is no room on this footprint. I still don’t’ have the room for the electrical substations. Right now, we’re at a standstill. What I’ve got here is we cannot design this when we do not know where we are going to put it at. I’ve got to get this done.”