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Bills, doubts pile up in utility fight

Only the residents of Huntertown can say whether they want their government to continue on its quixotic quest to get the better of Fort Wayne on utilities. But they should take a close look at the bills for what could be an increasingly expensive pipe dream.

Some, no doubt, see the town’s efforts to greatly expand its boundaries and create a huge sewer district as a noble struggle to free itself from the ruthless grasp of the city. But that may turn out to be a fantasy.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management denied Huntertown’s application to build its own sewage treatment plant in 2012. But Town Attorney David K. Hawk says he is confident Huntertown will win its appeal before the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication. “We’re going to get to build it,” he said in an interview Friday.

Presumably, Huntertown residents are aware of the $4.5 million cost of the town’s new water system, and of the estimated $11.1 million that a sewage plant would cost. But other bills are rolling in. A thousand here, ten thousand there – pretty soon it adds up, to as much as $275,000 so far this year.

One bill was a surprise even to the town’s council.

Joe Sutherland, an Indianapolis lobbyist, spoke in February on behalf of Huntertown at a Senate committee meeting in Indianapolis, weighing in on a bill concerning a 4-mile radius for utility service that Fort Wayne and Huntertown are disputing.

As The Journal Gazette’s Vivian Sade reported last week, Sutherland was hired by Hawk and was promised $10,000. An invoice was sent through to pay his company $5,300 on March 6. But there was no official public action on the matter beforehand, and as late as March 10, Huntertown Council President Pat Freck was unaware that Sutherland had even been hired. A week later, the town’s Utility Services Board, which is appointed by the council, approved a retroactive resolution to hire Sutherland.

Hawk said Friday he was responding to a crisis: Fort Wayne was successfully lobbying legislators to change the law in its favor. He said he hired Sutherland as a consultant/lobbyist after he tried and failed to reach the president of the USB, Andrew Conner, who was away on military reserve duty. “We were just getting killed down there (at the legislature),” he said. Hawk said that because the bill was related to litigation he was responsible for, the hiring “was necessary under the circumstances.”

After that, Hawk said, “I can’t honestly say that I discussed it with anybody” before he reported the hiring at the first USB meeting he was able to attend, on March 17.

It seems to us, though, that hiring someone and then telling people about it after he’s done the work and gotten more than half his pay is not in the spirit of open government. A cynic might say that’s a good way to avoid any unwanted scrutiny by the pesky public.

Sade also discovered that this year, the town has paid Hawk $132,000 for what appears to be work on utility issues – this in addition to his $662-per-month retainer. “All that’s not utility stuff,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of things on our plate these last three months.”

Invoices for work done from the last weeks of December through the first half of March also show $138,667.79 being paid out to other engineers, lawyers and consultants at work on some strand of Huntertown’s utilities efforts. Hawk says Huntertown is serious about negotiations with Fort Wayne and wants to end the costly legal war. Giving up its separate sewer-plant dream would be one way to resolve things.