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Fight over sewage gets new lawyers

Huntertown-City Utilities spat moves to state agency

In a meeting that lasted less than five minutes, Huntertown officials hired a new Indianapolis law firm for its fight against Fort Wayne City Utilities to establish exclusive water and sewer territory boundaries.

Huntertown Utility Service Board members Louie Zimmer and Dave McComb approved a contract Monday to pay Hackman Hulett & Cracraft LLP of Indianapolis to represent the town at Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission matters.

The third member and president of the board, Andrew Conner, was unable to attend.

The firm will be paid hourly rates of between $85 to $350 an hour, plus out-of-pocket and travel expenses, expert witness fees and other litigation and related expenses.

Town attorney Dave Hawk said the move was necessary in light of a recent ruling in Allen Superior Court that positioned City Utilities and Huntertown in front of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for any final decision on designating utility territories.

The court declined to decide whether Huntertown or Fort Wayne had “exclusive power” to provide water and sewer service. A new law puts any provision of water and sewer outside a municipality’s jurisdiction solely under the provision of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.

Huntertown conceded in court documents that its “water and sewer service area ordinances” aren’t enforceable unless the state utility regulatory commission approves them.

In the first five months of the year, the town, which has an annual budget of $1.7 million, had approved payments of $304,397 for legal services, the bulk of it for utility-related matters – including the town’s disputes with Fort Wayne City Utilities; its pursuit of building a wastewater treatment plant; and ongoing litigation with local developers.

Fort Wayne had been providing Huntertown with wastewater treatment as a wholesale customer until April 2013, under an agreement in place since the mid-1980s. Last year, Huntertown terminated the agreement, and Fort Wayne said it would charge the town the retail rate.

Last week, Fort Wayne City Utilities officials met with Huntertown residents, presenting a plan that would lower their sewer bills and offering to kick in $1 million to help the town implement it.

That proposal was not discussed by Huntertown Utility Service Board members, and a Town Council meeting scheduled for Monday was canceled because not enough members were present.