Water politics and bad blood fuel Coolville dissolution vote

After years of sometimes-acrimonious debate, Coolville residents will vote next month on an existential issue: whether the village should continue to exist. 

Residents in favor of dissolution have cited poor village services and high utility bills and claimed that village officials are incompetent and corrupt. Opponents say that those behind the dissolution push are spreading misinformation.

Debt and utility rates


Recently, much of the debate around dissolution has revolved around the village’s high water rates, the result of $2.2 million in debt the village owes to the Ohio Water Development Authority for constructing the village sewer system. In 2013, the village took out $6 million in Water Pollution Control loans. Of that amount, the village has paid about $1 million and the authority has forgiven about $2.7 million. The village is repaying the rest through 2036, with a 0% interest rate. 

The plans for the new sewer system date to 2003; previously, the village had no sewer or public wastewater infrastructure. OWDA and other bodies provided funding for plans, surveys, assessments and construction.

Jeremy Miller, a former village councilperson and a leading advocate for dissolution, says that residents were not consulted about the loan. That’s a problem, he said, because some would have preferred to manage their own septic tanks rather than be required to connect to the village’s sewer lines. 

It’s not clear that this would be advisable, or possible: In 2006, the Ohio EPA sampled eight septic tanks around the village and found that over half exceeded “public health nuisance standards” and posed a “threat to the environmental quality of the receiving streams,” which lead to the Hocking River. 

Regardless, the pro-dissolution advocates now claim the village government has raised water rates, borrowed from the village’s general fund and collected out-of-date water meter readings—all in an attempt to stay current on its loan repayments. The village has never been late for a payment, according to OWDA executive director Ken Heigel. 

The only source of revenue for repayment of the loan that the village provided in its loan application to OWDA is wastewater service charges. 

Roxanna Chiki (Rupe), a former village councilperson and former mayor pro tempore who is now leading anti-dissolution efforts, says that the arguments around the village’s “financial distress” constitute “misinformation.” 

If the village dissolves, responsibility for utility services would be transferred to a new entity—a county or regional water district, by state law—and rates would probably not go down, according to Dave Thompson, the chief of the Local Government Services section of the Ohio State Auditor’s Office. Thompson spoke to residents at a town hall meeting last month. 

In the meeting, Thompson explained that the village debt would be transferred along with responsibility for providing service, and the new operator would likely pass on to ratepayers new costs such as replacing water meters and hiring new staff. 

Thompson’s office is statutorily required to support the dissolution efforts, should the referendum pass—a process that he said could take two years.

It’s unclear who would take over utility services. The Meigs County-based Tuppers Plains-Chester Water District, which currently sells the village its water, is not interested in taking over operations, its executive director Derek Baum told the Independent in an email. The Athens County Water & Sewer Districts could step in, according to county Commissioner Lenny Eliason, but rates for Coolville residents would depend on hiring and the rates Tuppers Plains would charge the county. Troy Township, which contains Coolville, would be required to take over all other required services of village government, such as road upkeep.

Distrust in village government

At times, however, it can seem like the utility costs are only half of the problem. The other half lies with distrust that many residents have for village officials—though some involved in the dissolution effort are former village officials themselves, such as Miller. 

“There was a lot of lies told to [residents], a lot of misconceptions and a lot of empty promises that never got fulfilled,” he said. 

Miller and Amy Rupert, a former councilperson, have alleged repeatedly that councilperson Curtis Rood—a former mayor who resigned in 2016 amid accusations that he stole water from the village—and current Mayor Rose Tyman improperly prevented water shutoffs recently because their own houses appeared on the shutoff list. (Neither responded to requests for comment.) The village’s 2019 audit found that the village was not in compliance with an Ohio law that requires a separate board to govern utilities. The dysfunction is such that dissolution is “the best route to go at this point,” Miller said.

Many accusations leveled by dissolution advocates involve Chiki, a main organizer against the dissolution effort. Chiki took office as mayor for a brief period earlier this year when Tyman temporarily stepped down from her seat. Tyman’s leave was prompted by an altercation between her fiancée and then-village police chief Scott Miller—an incident which also fueled the dissolution campaign. 

Tyman alleged Chiki prevented her from resuming her duties as mayor following her leave. Chiki countered in an email that she stepped down in June 2022 after the conflicts of interest preventing Tyman from retaking her seat were settled. Pro-dissolution advocates also regularly claim that Chiki isn’t a resident of the village, which she also denies. 

Chiki also pushed back on claims that village government isn’t responsive to resident needs, providing examples from her tenure as mayor pro tempore: installing a handicap ramp at the village hall, investigating complaints that the village employee charged with reading water meters was neglecting their duties (leading to that employee quitting), and instituting online bill payment for residents.

Tyman’s position on dissolution is unclear. In October 2021, she called the dissolution battle a “hot mess,” but said she supported dissolution nonetheless. Since then, according to Rupert and Miller, she has waffled on the issue. 

“She talked to us in our little friend group about dissolution issues and was all about it,” Rupert said, “but now that she’s got her seat back as mayor, I don’t think that she’s for it at this point.” 

Tyman did not respond to a request for comment.

Rupert additionally alleged that Tyman improperly removed her from a seat on the village council. She told the Independent that in July, Tyman asked her to bring a letter of interest and some other documentation—including fingerprints taken at the Athens County Sheriff’s Office—in order to be appointed to a vacant seat. The fingerprints were allegedly lost shortly thereafter, which the village claimed prevented Rupert from taking her seat. But when Rupert showed up at the September meeting with new copies of her fingerprints, the council went into executive session and removed her. Posts from different parties on Facebook groups substantiate this sequence of events.

According to Rupert, Troy Township Trustee Mike Putman told councilors that the township wouldn’t help Coolville if Rupert was on the council due to personal conflict. This claim was echoed by anti-dissolution advocate Neil Cowen, who posted in a private Facebook group in September that Troy Township officials communicated to the village that “they will not do anything more for the Village until the Amy [Rupert] problem has been dealt with.” 

Since then, Rupert has been active in pro-dissolution Facebook groups. Neither Putman nor the other two Troy Township trustees responded to a request for comment.

Rupert also raised questions about how village finances are handled. She alleged that village fiscal officer Jim Ford told her that he keeps financial records in a tote bag. Along with Jeremy Miller, Rupert also raised questions around the ethics of Ford serving as the fiscal officer for both the village and Troy Township. 

Audits available from the Ohio State Auditor’s office show that, for over a decade, auditors have noted significant financial irregularities and failure to comply with a plethora of state budgeting laws. Ford, a former data center operations manager at Ohio University, did not respond to a request for comment. 

Ohio village dissolutions—there have been at least 12 others since 2010—are generally prompted by financial distress, according to a January 2022 report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. In general, small village finances are so susceptible to distress that if even relatively small amounts of money are lost, they may be faced with dissolution as the most attractive option, said Lisa Parshall, a political science professor at Daemen University in New York and the author of the Rockefeller Institute report.

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