Thursday, August 28, 2008

AKRON, Ohio | Some people dub it “stools for schools,” yet a plan to lease the city’s sewage system gets high marks from others.

Mayor Don Plusquellic, a Democrat, has proposed leasing the city-owned sewage system to a private contractor for up to $200 million and using the money to finance college scholarships for Akron’s public high school graduates.

It’s a novel idea, but the 100 city workers who run the sewage system oppose the plan and have forced the issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. Opponents fear privatizing public assets.

“Whenever you privatize something, you lose some control, especially controlling the sewer rates,” said Willie Smith, 57, a retired stagehand and community activist who fears private operation will lead to skyrocketing sewage rates.

Mr. Plusquellic, though, bristles at the notion and said the deal amounts to a trade-off.

He said money for the scholarships would help students attend the University of Akron or a trade school in the city, and turning over the system to a contractor would include rate caps and service guarantees.

Mr. Plusquellic said the plan would address brain drain - a migration of talented students out of the city. The city’s population also has dropped 4 percent, to 207,934, since 2000 because of a decline in the manufacturing industry.

Mr. Plusquellic’s plan is a twist on programs in other U.S. cities, including Kalamazoo, Mich., that offer scholarships to students with the hope that they eventually stay.

But the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators knows of no other program that leases a sewage system to pay for college scholarships.

The University of Akron has 24,000 students but only about 600 from Akron’s public schools. Tuition costs $8,382 a year for Ohio residents.

Mr. Plusquellic’s plan is meant to subsidize any remaining tuition after other scholarships and grants that a student gets. But there’s a hook: Plan backers favor a 30-year residency requirement to maximize return on investment.

Students who receive a scholarship would sign a contract and agree to pay Akron the equivalent of the city’s municipal income tax rate for up to 30 years on future income if they chose to live and work elsewhere, said Rick Merolla, Akron’s service director.

Plusquellic spokesman Mark Williamson said flexibility is necessary because a person could become employed by a global company, such as Akron-based Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., then get transferred.

Justin Draeger, a spokesman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the trade organization applauds any effort to increase the availability of money for college.

Still, a 30-year residency requirement would be a little long, he said.

cM.R. Kropko contributed to this report.

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