As the city moves forward to take over the Aqua Indiana water utility in southwest Allen County, both sides need to remember that reaching an amicable and mutually beneficial agreement outside of the court system would be the ideal resolution for all concerned parties – city residents and Aqua Indiana customers as well as the company’s shareholders.
In the meantime, the Fort Wayne City Council should not get bogged down by procedural minutiae and should move decisively to begin condemnation proceedings against the privately held utility.
Representatives from both City Utilities and Aqua Indiana will press their case to City Council members at a public hearing on the condemnation ordinance on Tuesday. One issue of potential dispute that council members will need to grapple with is the condemnation procedure.
State law governing eminent domain, which changed recently, requires government entities seeking condemnation to determine there is a public necessity, complete an appraisal of the assets, make a final good-faith offer and then condemn the utility.
Advisers to the city believe the law allows the city to vote on the necessity of the takeover and vote for the condemnation at one time.
Aqua Indiana and its supporters on the council will push for the council to vote soon on the public necessity declaration but to wait for a condemnation vote later.
But City Utilities leaders are right to move forward with the condemnation as well.
Delaying a second vote will only result in mounting costs and would have no practical advantages.
Regardless, the city will get an appraisal of Aqua Indiana’s assets, and the City Council will have the final say on whether the purchase is made. If the price is too high, City Council always has the option to vote against the purchase.
Consider the city’s condemnation and purchase of Aqua’s northern utility. Five years later, the price the city paid remains the subject of a court battle that has already gone to the Indiana Supreme Court twice on purely procedural issues that Aqua Indiana raised, not the central question of whether the amount is correct.
Ideally, city officials wanted to wait until the court finalized the costs for that transaction before entering into another long and expensive battle for the southwest area.
But Mayor Tom Henry decided the city needed to move forward after Aqua Indiana was unable to meet residents’ water needs during the summer drought of 2012.
Southwest residents have long complained about Aqua Indiana’s high rates, poor water quality and low pressure. Aqua Indiana has spent millions of dollars to address the concerns. The water quality has improved, but problems persist.
There is room for a symbiotic accord. City Utilities has a superior ability to supply Aqua Indiana’s 12,000 customers in southwest Fort Wayne with plenty of high-quality water at a lower rate.
And Aqua Indiana has excess sewer capacity that could alleviate Fort Wayne sewage treatment concerns.
But unless and until agreement is reached, the city should move forward.