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Aboite’s water

Aboite Township residents were probably elated with Mayor Tom Henry’s announcement on Thursday that the city wants to take over Aqua Indiana’s water service in southwest Fort Wayne. Complaints about the utility’s poor water quality, unreliability and high rates are common. Although the prospects of acquiring the utility are promising, city officials and residents should wait until all costs are known before celebrating.

Henry plans on putting the proposal to begin condemnation in front of the Fort Wayne City Council before year’s end. If the council approves the ordinance, the city will begin what could be a lengthy process to take over the private utility’s water service. The city is not looking to take over Aqua Indiana’s sewer service.

“This is great news,” said City Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, at the news conference. “I think City Council will receive this very warmly.”

Councilman Mitch Harper, R-4th, who represents nearly all Aqua Indiana customers living in Fort Wayne, is also a customer himself and has long worked with the city administration to address constituent concerns about the utility.

“Acquiring Aqua Indiana would be hugely popular,” Harper said. “It would solve the water pressure and public safety issues.”

Harper supports the city’s effort but is also asking needed questions about long-term costs for residents.

Aqua Indiana serves 12,000 customers in southwest Fort Wayne, and 70 percent of those customers are city residents. “We’ve been patient with Aqua Indiana, but now is the time to take action,” Henry said. “This is about public health and public safety. Those issues cannot be compromised.”

This summer Fort Wayne City Utilities had to provide emergency relief to 1,200 Aqua Indiana customers during the drought.

Aqua Indiana’s chronic problems caused Senate President Pro Tem David Long, also an Aqua Indiana customer, to step in and ask the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to intervene on behalf of customers.

Long’s effort most likely tilted the scales and indicated to city officials that the timing was right to pursue condemnation.

While Long said he is not usually a proponent of eminent domain, he thinks it is warranted in this case. He said the utility has had ample opportunity to make improvements, but problems persist.

“It’s obvious there are serious problems with the utility and this is for ratepayers who are paying exorbitant rates,” Long said. “In this situation I hold my nose and know this is the best option.”

City officials estimate the average Aqua Indiana customer will save between $160 and $220 each year if Fort Wayne City Utilities takes over as the service provider. City Utilities can also ensure improved water quality and reliability.

The takeover attempt has added risks since the city’s battle with Aqua Indiana over the price of its northern service area is still unsettled. But there are differences in the two cases that favor the city. The public outcry from southwest residents wanting city water service is much greater. Aqua Indiana’s northern service area’s problems were mostly about rusty water. But in the southwest service district the concerns are more calamitous. It appears the utility can’t keep up with demand and has not demonstrated it has a reasonable plan for improvement that won’t harm ratepayers.

Despite all the customer complaints and public safety concerns, acquiring Aqua Indiana will be a long and costly process at a time when city leaders are working with a tight budget. This is a case in which it is in everybody’s best interest if the city and Aqua Indiana can reach a settlement.