City of Ciaccia

How Northeast Ohio’s Wastewater Chief Became One of the Most Versatile and Respected Executives in the Public Utility Industry

By Andrew Farr


 ciaccia

 


Julius Ciaccia woke up, got out of bed and grabbed the morning newspaper. It was Sunday, November 13, 1977. He was 28.

He didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the unofficial moment he began his career in the utility industry — one that would eventually span more than 35 years and transform him into one of the nation’s well-known leaders in municipal water and sewer systems. But that morning, Ciaccia was in for a surprise.

This particular Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer — the weekend following the 1977 election — included a section highlighting Cleveland’s new mayor, cabinet members and various appointees. The week prior, Ciaccia had been appointed by the newly-elected mayor to be the assistant director of public utilities. He was to start the job on Monday. After the election, all cabinet members and appointees had their pictures taken and were to be featured in the Sunday paper. But when Ciaccia turned to the page highlighting the new administration, he was surprised to see his picture with the title “Acting Utilities.”

“I didn’t know what that meant,” he recalls. “What does that mean, ‘acting utilities?”

When Ciaccia called up the new mayor’s chief of staff to inquire, he discovered that the man appointed director of public utilities had backed out and Ciaccia would now have to carry the load as acting director until the position could be permanently filled. Ciaccia would now be responsible for heading up a department consisting of three divisions employing hundreds of people operating the City of Cleveland’s major public utility systems.

The real catch? Ciaccia had virtually no experience working in the utility industry.

Going Back

Ciaccia is a native Clevelander. He grew up on Cleveland’s east side and has lived in and around the city practically his entire life. The phonetic Italian pronunciation of his last name is CHAH-chuh, but somewhere along the line, he says his family adopted the pronunciation of ‘Chach’ (rhymes with watch). Today, those who know him tend to address him affectionately as “Ciaccia,” rather than his first name, Julius.

“Somehow it just became a nickname. It was for my father, it is for me and it is for my son. It serves as an incorrect last name phonetically, but incorrectly,” it’s a great nickname,” he says, smiling.

Despite where his career path would eventually lead him, environmental issues like water resources and water pollution control were not on Ciaccia’s mind growing up. Instead, he gravitated toward business administration, first studying at The Ohio State University and later moving back home and attending Cleveland State University where he earned his degree.

Ciaccia admits he was undecided about his career, but after finishing school, a friend of his who was a Cleveland city councilman set him up with a job working in the Cleveland Clerk of Courts office in 1976. As it turns out, the Clerk of Municipal Courts for the City of Cleveland at that time was a man by the name of Dennis Kucinich.

Ciaccia worked for Kucinich in the Clerk of Courts office in 1976 and 1977, where the two got to know each other. In 1977, Kucinich ran for mayor and won, becoming Cleveland’s 53rd mayor, and at age 31, one of the youngest ever in U.S. history. When Kucinich was elected, he asked Ciaccia if he would work for him in the public utilities department as assistant director. Even though Ciaccia wasn’t experienced in the area, Kucinich trusted him and wanted someone he knew to be his eyes and ears and learn the job.

Ciaccia says this gave him some level of comfort — until he saw the newspaper that weekend.

Public Utilities Department

Ciaccia was immediately thrown into the fire, working as the acting director of public utilities from November of 1977 to March of 1978 until a replacement was found to lead the department. He was then able to move back into the assistant director role to which he was initially appointed.

“I walked, all by myself, into a building of a few hundred people and I had no idea what they did and who they were,” he says. “All I knew is what I was hearing and what I was briefed on. And there were a lot of issues going on. I lost 10 pounds in probably two weeks.

“Things were very political,” he recalls. “Everybody who worked in that building worked under the previous mayor because we unseated an incumbent mayor. So I walked into what I considered a hostile political situation.”

Ciaccia says despite the pressure, the job forced him to quickly learn the operation of running the utilities and balancing the management of the three different divisions — power, water and sewer.

After about a year in that role, Kucinich’s administration was in serious turmoil. Ciaccia was looking for a change, but wanted to stay within the department in an operations role with one of the utilities — a civil service-protected position that does not change when the mayor changes. He found he was interested in water, specifically the position of water commissioner.

“I really picked up a lot on the organization and I felt most interested in water,” he says. “It was a regional utility; it had the largest workforce within the department. There were so many things that intrigued me. I was just drawn to it and I thought there was a lot of opportunity to really make some positive impact.”

In the 1979 election, George Voinovich was elected mayor of Cleveland and gave Ciaccia the position of deputy commissioner. However, the commissioner role was not immediately filled, and — similar to what happened in the utilities department — Ciaccia ended up running the water utility as acting water commissioner for two years before transitioning back to deputy commissioner.

Cleveland Water

Ciaccia continued to work as deputy commissioner at Cleveland Water until 1988, when Voinovich appointed him to commissioner. Throughout his time with Cleveland Water and through his various changes in positions, Ciaccia says he learned a lot about infrastructure issues locally, and well as on a national scale. Like many areas of the country, Cleveland was struggling with aging infrastructure, specifically with the condition of its treatment facilities and distribution system.”

Julius Ciaccia

Ciaccia talks with plant operators at NEORSD’s Southerly treatment facility. The sewer district’s Project Clean Lake involves several upgrades to increase capacity and secondary treatment at NEORSD’s treatment plants.

During Ciaccia’s time as commissioner, Mike White was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1989. It was under White’s mayoral term that Ciaccia and Cleveland Water took on a series of substantial capital improvement projects for the city’s drinking water infrastructure, investing more than $1 billion in improvements. Most notably, the utility invested $700 million in upgrading the city’s four water treatment and delivery plants. Construction significantly upgraded the condition of the facilities as well as created interconnectivity between the plants so that the system could remain operational even if one of the plants needed to be taken offline. All projects were delivered within budget. The utility also completed a massive amount of work on improving the condition of distribution mains through cleaning and rehabilitating.

By 2002, Jane Campbell had become mayor of Cleveland, and in 2004, the then-director of the department of public utilities retired. Ciaccia, not looking forward to working under another utilities director, was ready for a change and asked Campbell if she would consider him for the position. Ciaccia got the job. After 28 years with the city, he was once again right back in the director of public utilities role he started in back in 1977. “I ended right where I started with the city,” Ciaccia says, laughing.

From 2004 to 2007, which included the election of the current mayor Frank Jackson in 2006, Ciaccia remained in the director role and at one point, considered leaving the public sector to move into the consulting world. “We continued investing and making improvements on the water and sewer side, but at that point I was looking to retire [from the city].”

But in 2006, the executive director of Cleveland’s regional sewer utility, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD), had announced his retirement and the Board of Trustees was looking for a replacement. Ciaccia decided to toss his hat in the ring and — once again — got the job. It’s the position he is still in today, now with the title of CEO.

A Fury of Regulation

Throughout his career, Ciaccia’s versatility in leadership on both the water and sewer side, as well as at the public utilities department, has given him a vast understanding of issues ranging from rate setting, affordability and governance issues to design and construction contract negotiation and project delivery. He says one big issue he reflects on, as he mulls over the various positions he’s held, is the evolution of regulatory compliance issues which experienced a major shift as he entered the industry in the late 1970s.

“We had some severely compromised assets, and that was the case around the country,” he says. “When I first started [with the city], the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act were relatively new, and you had a lot of utilities trying to ramp up to deal with those particular acts. So there were a lot of regulations coming at us that you never had to comply withuse-for-cover before. You had a fury of regulations.
“In the case of wastewater, you had some big federal grants coming out of Washington, and on the drinking water side, we did not. It was always go at it on your own, and so that became a real challenge for us. All of a sudden we were faced with regulations on top of the infrastructure which was crumbling, and we had to start raising rates.”

Ciaccia acknowledges this was a time when advocacy associations like the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies were forming in Washington to represent public utility agencies to try to make sense of regulation — associations Ciaccia would become heavily involved in during his career.

In water, another issue Ciaccia says was always difficult — due to the fact that water is so heavily public — is the issue of governance. “Trying to deal with various programs on top of our programs that our governments want us to carry out was tough,” he says. “Social and community programs on top of our capital programs [for example]. At a time when you’re having to raise rates, it’s a real delicate balance. Because we’re public, there’s a lot of politics with setting rates. And politicians have a lot of wants beyond what those rates cover.”

NEORSD & Consent Decrees

When Ciaccia forwarded himself for the executive director position of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, he was confident he didn’t need the direct experience on the wastewater side to successfully run the utility.

“I said, “Well I’ve got 30 years in the water industry,” he says. “I know it’s wastewater but it’s pretty much the same. I know the governance, I know the politics, I know the region, I know all the suburban mayors we’re going to be dealing with, I know the Board members and I knew I’d be a strong candidate.”

Ciaccia won, again.

During his time with NEORSD, Ciaccia has been praised for undertaking a massive program to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) — a program the sewer district calls Project Clean Lake. Project Clean Lake is a $3 billion, 25-year program that will reduce the total volume of raw sewage discharges in the region from 4.5 billion gallons to about 494 million gallons annually. More than 98 percent of wet weather flows in NEORSD’s combined sewer system will be receiving treatment. The program is part of a federal consent decree from the U.S. EPA that requires NEORSD’s CSO discharges to be controlled to required levels.

NEORSD worked with consultants CH2M and Wade Trim to develop the program and project delivery system. In all, NEORSD will construct seven collection tunnels as part of Project Clean Lake, ranging from two to five miles in length, up to 300 ft underground and up to 24 ft in diameter. Project Clean Lake also involves several upgrades to increase capacity and secondary treatment at NEORSD’s wastewater treatment facilities. The projects also include green infrastructure components and stormwater control measures.

Stormwater project funding has been a controversial issue for NEORSD in recent years. In October, after five years of litigation, the sewer district was granted authority by the Ohio Supreme Court to set up and run a stormwater management program. Under this program, the Sewer District will charge property owners a fee based on the amount of impervious surface they own; impervious surfaces increase stormwater runoff and cause flooding, streambank erosion and water quality problems.

At NEORSD, Ciaccia is the top level interface with the governing bodies of the regional communities in Northeast Ohio. Although he says his job is much more strategic, he spends much of his time on NEORSD’s construction program — where much of the risk for the organization lies. But Ciaccia says he is passionate about the work that the sewer district is doing, and despite it being part of a federal consent decree, he believes the CSO program is work that should be done regardless of whether it’s mandated.

“The work that we’re doing is work that we should be doing,” he says. “To me, combined sewer overflows are sewage. I don’t see the difference between combined stormwater and sewage, and just sewage. Now, I don’t believe you can capture 100 percent, because you can’t anticipate what types of storms are going to come at you, and we certainly don’t want water in everyone’s basements.

“I think that as a water and wastewater professional, we should always be striving for the most sensible level of control we can reach,” he continues. “A lot of my peers like to say that we are the true environmentalists. But you cannot call yourself a true environmentalist if you can live with massive amounts of sewage overflowing into the environment on an annual basis. You just can’t do it. So we should be driven toward reaching what makes sense. Unfortunately, because we’re public sector, a lot of my peers have to be sensitive to the public whims of elected officials. And I totally understand that. That’s a dilemma we have in this industry. But the cost of delaying [needed projects] is massive.”

Ciaccia also acknowledges that while consent decrees are a necessary evil to shift the blame for rate increases, it’s also not a bad thing that they exist to force cities or rural communities to take on certain projects. “It’s funny. So many people want to bad-mouth the EPA and make them the bad guy. But we put them in that position,” he says. “They have a duty to carry out the Clean Water Act.”

Advocacy & Communication

Throughout his career, Ciaccia has been an industry advocate and leader within his utilities as well as on a national scale. He’s quick to distribute credit to his team at the sewer district for their professionalism and passion.

“I am blessed to have the best team that a CEO could possibly have, especially in the public sector,” Ciaccia says.


“A lot of my peers like to say that we are the true environmentalists. But you cannot call yourself a true environmentalist if you can live with massive amounts of sewage overflowing into the environment on an annual basis. You just can’t do it. So we should be driven toward reaching what makes sense. Unfortunately, because we’re public sector, a lot of my peers have to be sensitive to the public whims of elected officials. And I totally understand that. That’s a dilemma we have in this industry.”


Ciaccia is also applauded by his peers for his leadership on national issues. He’s gained experience and admiration in this area through his in involvement with AWWA, where he was chair of its Water Utility Council, the Water Research Foundation (WRF) where he is a past chair, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), where he has served as president of each.

“Ciaccia is a visionary, but he’s also extremely pragmatic, which is a rare combination oftentimes,” says Adam Krantz, CEO of NACWA, who has worked with Ciaccia for the past 15 years at the association. “He has knowledge of the whole sector and understands how everything is ‘one water.’ For me, it’s the manner in which he sees his local and regional issues as being tied and very distinctively linked to national policy issues and drivers. He’s always wanted to play, and has played, a leadership role through the association world.”

Krantz is also one of many people who see Ciaccia’s unique perspective on issues like affordability and new ways of thinking in the water/wastewater industry when it comes to the level of needed investment.

“He has a willingness and understanding that you need to raise rates and charge stormwater fees,” he says. “He’s recently backed that to the point where it had to go to the Supreme Court in Ohio, but he stuck to his guns, and he won. It’s one thing to run a place and it’s another thing to lead a place and be a winner. Ciaccia leads and he wins time after time.”

NEORSD is also vocal through its public relations and branding. The utility has a Facebook page it updates regularly, and on Twitter, it publicizes activities, projects and events, such as a recent open house that drew more than 1,700 people to tour a treatment facility. Krantz notes that while Ciaccia is not the type of person to be out in front talking about himself, he is at the head of a major shift in how people view utilities and their importance to public health.

 

“It’s one thing to run a place and it’s another thing to lead a place and be a winner. Ciaccia leads and he wins time after time.”

— Adam Krantz, CEO, National Association of Clean Water Agencies

 

“In about the past five years, we’ve seen a new brand of utility leader — people who are now essentially branding their utilities as clean water agencies or resource recovery agencies and trying to demonstrate the critical role these systems play as economic drivers, job creators and environmental protectors,” Krantz says. “A lot of people have followed Ciaccia’s lead. He gets the notion that what you’re providing is a public service and you have to sometimes announce your role and explain to people what it is you’re doing and why it’s so important and constantly and consistently get their buy-in and make sure the public is on your side.”

The Problem with Affordability

Today, Ciaccia admits he has been in the game a long time. He knows the industry is largely public sector-led and that many problems stem from the reluctance to accept the level of investment needed in our infrastructure, referencing ASCE’s Report Card that has never been above a D+. Ciaccia says accepting is one thing but the next step is actually doing something, which unfortunately requires raising rates.

Ciaccia realizes he has formed opinions throughout his career that others may or may not agree with or may be afraid to admit. The issue of affordability is one he takes seriously, and his candidness reflects his experience.

“The whole discussion that goes on about affordability I find self-defeating because you’re either raising rates or causing delay, which makes the programs more expensive because of escalation costs. “You can’t expect the public to accept rate increases. I don’t accept it. I don’t accept it when gas goes up, I don’t accept it when a loaf of bread goes up, I don’t accept it when my cable bill goes up. But I pay it.

“Obviously people are paying for their cable and cell phone. Why are those markets exploding? And why isn’t ours? We’re too busy talking about affordability in too broad a sense. Affordability is a big issue for some of our customers, and we need to focus our efforts to help them.

“Some people are going to have their water turned off and they can’t help it. They can’t live without water any more than they can’t live without gas and electric, yet there’s a program to deal with them on the energy side called LIHEAP. Well, what about us? Why are we any less important? We need to be communicating the value of service to the public.

“The affordability issue is becoming more significant but we’re talking about it in the wrong way. It begs the question. If we cannot get out of this paradigm, should we remain public entities? Would private companies do any better? I don?t know.

“But I’m proud that we’re running a program here that’s currently $300 million under our $3 billion planning estimate, and we think there’s another $300 million potential savings of better ways to deliver that program and still meet the level of control that the EPA has in our consent decree.”

“The affordability issue is becoming more significant but we’re talking about it in the wrong way. It begs the question. If we cannot get out of this paradigm, should we remain public entities? Would private companies do any better? I don’t know.”

Outside of the water world, Ciaccia enjoys jogging, biking and is a die hard Cleveland Browns and Cavaliers fan.

“Actually,” he says, “when you ask me what I’m most proud of in life, I have a wonderful wife I couldn’t be without and I have three daughters and a son who are college graduates with great jobs who are raising six healthy grandkids. And I don’t know how it gets much better than that.”

 


Andrew Farr is the associate editor of Water Finance & Management.

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