Huntertown has voted to extend its water and sewer boundaries a bit. Well, quite a bit.
Huntertown itself is 2,500 acres. Its new water district, if the ordinance approved by the town council earlier this month stands, will be 56,000 acres – about 25 times that size, according Ted Nitza, a program manager for Fort Wayne City Utilities.
The theoretical coverage area of the towns new sewer district, approved last week, would be similar – a four-mile collar around the tiny community. Perhaps not since prewar Germany has an entity so small tried to lay claim to so much more land.
But the analogy stops with that. There are no Nazis involved here, or even villains. But a legal war is raging over water and sewer customers in the Huntertown area.
Like 15 other Allen County communities, Huntertown depends on City Utilities to dispose of its sewage. Like most of those communities, the town operates its own water utility; a $4.5 million project is under way to improve the towns water system.
Town leaders also believe they could reduce costs for their community by cutting ties with City Utilities and building an independent wastewater-treatment plant, which it estimates will cost $11.2 million.
Plans for that plant have stopped at a governmental brick wall. Ruling that the towns plan to discharge effluent into a ditch that empties into the Eel River would degrade water quality, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management last year turned down Huntertowns application to build the plant, suggesting that the community remain hooked into Fort Wayne.
This would be fine with City Utilities. Its director, Kumar Menon, believes the community and its residents will get a better deal by relying on Fort Waynes expertise and economies of scale. Huntertown was the fastest-growing city in Indiana last year, Menon said. Were proud to have been able to support that growth.
Collectively, he says, we have 4,000 years of experience. We try to be a resource utility, providing expert advice and assistance.
Each of the countys service areas trying to do that on its own would be ineffective and inefficient. In addition, Menon said, IDEM prefers to deal with one regional entity.
It gives them one throat to choke, he joked. We are willing to stick our necks out.
But the Huntertown council is convinced that a separate plant would work. It has some strong talking points.
Huntertown is charged more for sewage disposal than other area customers, partly because of the 13 miles sewage must travel to reach Fort Waynes facilities. And rates have indeed risen painfully.
The town submitted detailed projections to IDEM that predicted reduced rates after an independent system is under way for a few years and notified City Utilities that its contract for sewer services, which ran out in April, would not be renewed.
Were a small town, and we did a lot of diligent work trying to get our own plant, said Huntertown Councilman Gary Grant. The council was motivated by Fort Waynes rising sewage treatment charges to the community, he said.
Grant disagrees, however, with the councils decision to pursue a costly appeal of IDEMs ruling. Im just against the money that its costing us. Im worried about the financial cost to our town.
Compounding the issue, City Utilities is still accepting Huntertown sewage for treatment, though Huntertowns 20-year contract with the city ran out in April.
The two governments have ended up in court before. In 2008, Huntertown sued after City Utilities raised its rates because the towns contract had expired. Saying the utilitys notification letter was unclear, a judge ordered City Utilities to restore Huntertowns lower rate. Now Huntertown is again suing Fort Wayne. City Utilities would like for the matter to go to mediation.
So, lets add it up. Huntertowns council wants to spend millions on a plant the state has asked it not to build. Its already spending several million dollars for a water system, and it wants to continue spending on legal fights.
Meanwhile, its far from clear that an independent Huntertown system would be cheaper than one hooked up to Fort Wayne and the citys other county partners.
City Utilities officials are certain that it wouldnt, and they promise to give Huntertown a rate thats fair in relation to other customers.
Only Huntertown itself can bring this costly, quixotic campaign to a halt. Those who live there should pressure the Huntertown council to drop its lawsuits and territorial maneuvers and come to the bargaining table as quickly as possible – for their sake and for the sake of all the developers, engineers and lawyers who could better spend their time worrying about other things.