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Panel approves of sewer rate hike

$3.44 a month would pay for work to end overflows

– Board of Public Works members Wednesday approved borrowing $257.5 million to pay for the next phase of projects to stop Fort Wayne’s sewers from overflowing into the rivers – and five years of rate increases to pay for it.

Under the plan that will be introduced to City Council on Tuesday, rates will rise each year for five years for a total increase of 49 percent. Each increase will raise the monthly bill for the average household an average of $3.44.

The city is under an agreement with the federal government to nearly eliminate instances in which its sewer system overflows into the three rivers. Currently, this happens about 70 times a year, polluting the rivers with about 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage. By 2025, the frequency of overflows must be reduced to an average of four times a year on the St. Marys and once a year on the St. Joseph.

“The challenge in a program like this is how to pay for it,” said City Utilities’ Len Poehler. The money will come from ratepayers: In May 2009, the City Council approved a five-year schedule of rate increases totaling 86 percent. Through cost savings, officials were able to delay the next round of rate increases by a year.

The federal agreement was signed in 2007 and took effect in 2008. The $240 million estimate is the cost in 2005 dollars; the city is expected to pay close to $400 million over the 18 years of the program.

The first six years have brought upgrades to the sewage treatment plant to increase its capacity from 60 million gallons a day to 70 million gallons; more than 20 sewer separation projects; and rehabbing of 84 miles of sewers.

Projects in the next five years will increase the treatment plant capacity to 85 million gallons a day: more sewer separation projects; relief sewers to add capacity; and 100 miles of sewer line rehabbing, said City Utilities’ Matthew Wirtz.

But the largest project, by far, will be a 5-mile-long tunnel running under the heart of the city from Foster Park to the treatment plant, collecting sewage along the way to be either treated or stored for treatment later.

The $150 million Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel, known as 3RPORT, will be between 12 and 16 feet in diameter and at least 150 feet deep. Construction could take up to eight years.

The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed rate increases July 22.