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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Woodburn Mayor Dick Hoeppner, left, and Ryan Wall of Severn Trent Services tour Woodburn’s wastewater facility.

Cost of sewers skewers town budgets

Tougher regulations send many hamlets to regional providers

Wirtz

In general, people don’t like to think about it.

When they turn on the faucet, they expect a glass of clean water.

When they flush the toilet, they just want it to go away.

Does it matter that both may end up in the same place? Well, don’t think about it.

Water and sewer services are essential to the quality of life, but many small communities struggle with the problem of providing high-quality water and sewer services in the face of rapidly accelerating costs and seemingly never-ending costly federal and state mandates.

In recent years, many smaller communities in Allen County have turned over one or more utilities to regional utility providers like Fort Wayne City Utilities or Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District when compliance issues became too cumbersome or costly. But others claim utility ownership enables communities to control economic growth and maintain lower rates.

Huntertown has garnered a lot of attention while it battles for autonomy and independence from City Utilities, which treats Huntertown’s wastewater.

“Huntertown used to own and operate its own sewer plant, but in the 1980s came and asked for our help,” City Utilities spokesman Frank Suarez said.

Communities such as Huntertown, Grabill, Zanesville, Leo-Cedarville, Maysville Road area and New Haven send wastewater to City Utilities for treatment.

Zanesville was one of the communities that needed help five years ago.

In 2009, the town sold its sewer infrastructure to City Utilities for $180,000, said Julie Christian, the town’s clerk-treasurer.

Water is not an issue, because residents have their own wells, Christian said.

“We had our own sewer system, but it just became too expensive to maintain,” she said.

Residents pay a flat rate of $67 per month to City Utilities for sewer services.

“At the time City Utilities took over, we were paying $82 a month and a lower rate was a stipulation of the five-year contract,” Christian said, adding that the agreement has worked out well.

But the contract expires this year and residents wonder whether rates will increase and how much, Christian said.

‘Too costly’

In Grabill, a town that has seen rapid growth in the past few years, residents pay $22.09 a month for water and $69.20 for sewer, based on 5,000 gallons of water, Clerk-Treasurer Cynthia Barhydt said.

The town has its own water plant but contracts with City Utilities for sewage treatment. Grabill joined up with City Utilities in 2005 after its sewer system was cited for violations by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, she said.

Grabill paid City Utilities $150,608 to treat its wastewater last year, down from $155,367 the year before, Barhydt said.

“The town would love to have its own plant – we even checked into getting grants,” Barhydt said. “But it was too costly and we did not have the funds.”

A few miles away, in Huntertown, funds don’t seem to be a problem.

The town is constructing a $1.8 million water filtration plant at Lima and Carroll roads, part of a $4.5 million project to improve the capacity and pressure of the town’s water system. According to an application for a state revolving loan submitted March 26, the town’s proposed plan to build a wastewater treatment plant and equalization flow basin is estimated to cost $18.3 million.

The equalization basin to store and pretreat wastewater is necessary whether the town stays with City Utilities or builds its own plant, said Andrew Conner, president of the town’s utilities board.

City Utilities has provided the town with sewer service since 1988, but that contract expired last year, although Fort Wayne continues to treat the wastewater. Huntertown’s sewer plant application was denied by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management two years ago. The town filed an appeal, which is pending.

Town officials increased sewer rates 64 percent last year and OK’d an additional 46 percent increase two weeks ago.

Growing need

For many smaller communities, owning, operating and maintaining utilities and finding and paying qualified staff is a cost-prohibitive venture, said Matthew Wirtz, deputy director of engineering at City Utilities.

“I do think it is an option that every community needs to evaluate,” Wirtz said.

City Utilities has two types of staff with decades of experience between them, including some who work with infrastructure and some who work in the plant, he said.

The experience and professional training of the staff enable them to help smaller communities with the long-term risk of running a water or sewer plant, he said.

“We are prepared when it comes to new advances in technology and the efforts it takes to meet the high cost of compliance,” Wirtz said.

To comply with state and federal mandates, City Utilities must invest $240 million over the next 15 years to improve the quality of area rivers.

In New Haven, sewer rates just increased by 42 percent. The city buys its water from City Utilities and pays the utility to treat its wastewater.

The increase was necessary because of City Utilities’ rate increases and to fund improvements and repairs to city infrastructure, Mayor Terry McDonald said.

Last year the city paid more than $1.6 million to City Utilities for wastewater treatment, he said.

The city would like to be independent of City Utilities, but the cost is prohibitive, McDonald said.

“I fully understand Huntertown’s situation,” McDonald said. “If we had our own plants, we could better control our costs.”

New Haven wants to control its own growth, McDonald said.

‘At their mercy’

Residents in Leo-Cedarville pay three separate utility bills each month – one to Pioneer Water, one to the Leo-Cedarville Regional Sewer District and one to the town for stormwater fees and garbage pickup, Town Manager Peggy Garton said.

The town is awaiting an engineering study on the feasibility of building and operating its own utility plants, she said.

The Regional Water and Sewer District was formed in 1976, and City Utilities has done a good job of providing capacity when Leo-Cedarville was growing, District employee Basil Wisler said.

“Basically, we are at their mercy, but they’ve always done a good job of conveying when there was a need for rate increases and have given us advance notice,” Wisler said.

Woodburn owns its own water and sewage facilities and has the capacity to handle growth, although the sewage plant is currently undergoing state-ordered modifications, Clerk-Treasurer Holly Sarrazine said.

The town recently ordered a rate study to see whether sewer rate increases are warranted, she said.

There are advantages and disadvantages to owning and operating municipal plants, Mayor Dick Hoeppner said.

“We must look at raising rates when involved in a large project and that is hard on many residents, particularly those on fixed incomes,” Hoeppner said.

The town is tackling its utility issues one year at a time to curb costs, he said.

Hoeppner feels Huntertown’s pain.

“The whole situation is very political,” he said. “Fort Wayne is the big gorilla and the area is a big, growing one.

Hoeppner said Woodburn has enough capacity to set up a regional sewer district and take in Grabill, Harlan and other nearby communities. But those communities have signed long-term contracts with the Allen County Water and Sewer District and City Utilities and the flow is pumped across the county and back into Fort Wayne where it’s treated.

“That’s silly,” Hoeppner said. “We’re right here in the east Allen County corner – they’re sending it the wrong way.”

vsade@jg.net

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