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Mansfield voters will decide on tax for water infrastructure. Other Ohio cities face same problem

Eric Miller stands where an apartment complex was destroyed in a fire in 2014.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Eric Miller shows where an apartment complex was destroyed in a fire in 2014 on March 7, 2024.

Communities across Ohio have been updating their water systems and replacing lead pipes to ensure safe drinking water. But in Mansfield, advocates say the city needs new pipes for a different reason. On Tuesday, voters will learn if a new tax to replace aging water mains will be added.

“We’re standing where there was once a unit like that," Eric Miller said, pointing to a red brick apartment building with brown balconies overlooking a parking lot in Mansfield.

"The fire was during the daytime. No one was in danger," he continued. "In fact, people had plenty of time to go get their pets, get furnishings out."

What started as a small fire in a utility closet led to the loss of the entire 24-unit apartment building in 2014, Miller said.

“This hydrant was right here, OK? And there were hydrants along the street," he said, gesturing to a manicured residential street dotted with faded yellow fire hydrants.

There’s nothing wrong with the hydrants lining the street of the apartment complex, Miller said. But instead of connecting to one of them during the fire, the fire department had to travel more than half a mile to find a fire hydrant with access to enough water.

A fire hydrant
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
The fire hydrant firefighters had to use to access enough water, pictured here on March 7, 2024, was more than half a mile away from the apartment fire.

"You lose property needlessly," Miller said.

A citizen led ballot initiative to generate tax revenue to fix this is on the primary ballot. The Mansfield Water Main Initiative is a four-year, 0.25% income tax projected to generate $18 million. Miller is part of a group of citizens who helped place the same initiative on the ballot last November. It lost by about 600 votes.

“We’ve got 60 miles to go of water mains that are insufficient and that could replicate something like this where the fire will spread from one unit to another or from one home to another," Miller said.

According to the Mansfield Water Repair Department, there are more than 60 miles of water mains that are too small, corroded and in need of replacing. Many of Mansfield’s water mains were built in the 1920s, and back then, the city put in four-inch mains, which were not sufficient for the city’s water use, Miller said. Standard pipe diameters for water mains are between 8 and 12 inches, according to “WaterWorld Magazine,” a municipal water trade publication.

“The problem even for me is I come home, and you can take a shower and run the dishwasher and the washing machine at the same time. You never run out of water," Miller said. "You come in thirsty, you hit the faucet and water comes out. So it lulls you into a false sense of security, and I’m guilty of that.”

Selling voters on infrastructure that is not impeding their day to day life is hard, Julian Papania, a college student working on the campaign, said.

Eric Miller (left) and Julian Papania (right) stand in the street.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Eric Miller (left) and Julian Papania (right) stand on the street firefighters had to go to to access enough water to fight a 2014 apartment fire on March 7, 2024.

"I think everybody kind of takes our infrastructure for granted, especially if we are getting our necessities met," he said.

In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Ohio’s drinking water infrastructure a D plus. The issues Mansfield’s fire department has with aging water infrastructure is something many fire departments across the state deal with, Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Association President Colin Altman said.

“So you have that issue where a lot of these cities, especially the older cities, have very old water systems," he said, "so they’re crumbling or they have to go out of service because of lead or something along those lines so that we can’t use them for firefighting operations.”

This is something he faced while serving as chief of a fire department in Yellow Springs.

"There were very small mains in certain areas of town," Altman explained, "because they had never been upgraded to keep up with the residential development that happened."

Thinking about infrastructure is something Altman hopes communities do before developing, he said, which would help mitigate these problems.

"If we want to develop our communities and grow our population and therefore grow our tax base, that's a good thing," he said, "but do we have the infrastructure to support it? And sometimes I think that's the problem."

This could eventually begin to impact the economies of these communities, Altman said.

“Down the road it could also impact insurance rates," he said. "There are different insurance rating systems out there, but they all have something in common in that they look at the response from the fire department and do they have the water system that is necessary to fight fires.”

Pam Fleming stands outside.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Pam Fleming, pictured on March 7, 2024, is part of a group called Moms for Fire Safety, which advocates for the Mansfield Water Main Initiative.

The economic impact is something Pam Fleming thinks about. She’s part of an advocacy group called Moms for Fire Safety that’s supporting the initiative.

“It’s all about your economy and quality of life," she said. "Who’s going to come to a community that doesn’t have adequate water mains functioning for fire safety?”

One of the biggest pushbacks Miller hears is fear about raising taxes, he said.

“We have people who have been paying city income tax for 40 or 50 years, and they are living in neighborhoods that don’t have adequate fire protection," he said. "Because their water mains are corroded to the point that they’re almost useless for fighting a fire.”

But his message is clear: The cost of the tax will be less than the cost of losing your home in a fire.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.