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Utility mailer sparks confusion

Lack of FAQ gets city in hot water

– Fort Wayne City Utilities officials say outrage sparked among residents outside the city limits was caused by forgetting to include a Frequently Asked Questions insert in a mailer.

Dozens of raucous, angry people appeared for a public hearing at City Council’s Tuesday night meeting, wanting to know why they were being forced to connect to City Utilities’ sewer system and pay thousands of dollars in fees to do so.

When City Council members – who hadn’t yet heard the presentation on the measure – couldn’t answer questions, the crowd began yelling at them.

“You don’t know?” one woman yelled. “How can you have a bill on the table and not know anything about it?” a man shouted. “It’s baloney!” yelled another.

Shell-shocked council members then asked City Utilities officials to try to answer the questions, but they were prepared for the technical details on what they thought was a routine proposal to update connection fees, and it very quickly became clear that residents were under the impression this was something else entirely.

Some believed their water wells were going to have city meters installed on them – at a cost of $254 – and that they would have to pay the city for water out of their own wells.

City Clerk Sandy Kennedy was among those upset.

“I’m as frustrated as the people in the audience,” she said. “My name is on that letter and I had nothing to do with it. We started getting calls Friday and didn’t know anything about it.”

When City Utilities’ Nancy Townsend told the crowd they had nothing to worry about, they jeered, and someone yelled, “Get it in writing!”

What happened? Officials still weren’t certain Wednesday, but it appeared that a mailing they sent out to thousands of people outside Fort Wayne city limits should have contained a Frequently Asked Questions flier that would have told most people that the contents did not affect them in any way.

The proposal is to adjust the sewer connection fees that City Utilities charges for hooking up to sewers outside city limits. Those fees are usually paid by developers building a neighborhood or by homeowners voluntarily connecting because of failed or failing septic systems.

But state law requires that legal notice of fee adjustments be sent to anyone who could be affected – so officials had to send it to thousands of people outside the city’s borders.

And since the letter contained only the legal notice, there was no context given for the fees (some are actually going down) – only a map that appears to show most of the county in line to get sewers.

“We are already in the process of clarifying things for residents who may have questions about the issue of area connection fees,” spokesman Frank Suarez said. “A new letter with additional information is in the works and will soon be mailed and posted online.”

Suarez apologized for the confusion.

“As you know, City Utilities strives to communicate thoroughly with customers through a variety of methods. Our goal right now is to sort out any confusion as quickly as we can,” he said.

Officials said the matter should have been completely routine. Even the fee for a meter installed on a well is only for people who are already sewer customers and pay a flat fee. If those customers choose to have a water meter installed on their well, that water usage will be used to calculate their sewer charges.

The fee is not new; it is being raised to reflect the cost of the meter and installation, and customers are not charged for water use out of their own wells.

Suarez said officials are revamping the original FAQ to address questions raised by those at the hearing, but until then, the original version is available at www.cityoffortwayne.org/utilities/images/stories/docs/FAQ_AC_Fee_mailing.pdf.

Council members voted 8-0 to hold the measure for two weeks so officials could sort out the confusion and answer residents’ questions.

dstockman@jg.net

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