The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 27, 2022 1:00 am

Sewer board advisory panel proposed

Would accept customer input if city acquisition OK'd

DEVAN FILCHAK | The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne City Utilities has proposed an advisory board to balance the city-dominated board that would oversee county sewer district services if the city's acquisition is approved.

City Utilities and the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District have been working on the proposed acquisition that would lower rates for the district's customers. City Utilities would take on the district's debt and take over management of the district's customer service. Indiana Finance Authority's State Revolving Fund would provide $5 million in grant funds to City Utilities and refinance the district's $7 million in debt with zero percent interest for 35 years, which will lead to lower rates.

“That is a sweetheart deal that we want to take advantage of if we can,” said Chris Janak, the attorney helping City Utilities with the acquisition. “That's why you're able to take your rates from $120 down to $80. Without that, that would never happen.”

With the acquisition, the sewer district's board would remain intact so the service area can be expanded in the future. However, the makeup of the board would be changed to nine members – three county representatives and six from the city, including one appointed by City Council. The current seven-member board has five county members and two from City Utilities.

Fort Wayne City Council asked City Utilities in November to give the majority of board representation to county representatives before the council will pass the acquisition. Kumar Menon, director of City Utilities, has said the board has to remain city-dominant since it will be owned by the city.

The acquisition failed with a 5-4 vote by City Council members in December after the sewer district met without changing the proposed board's representation.

Andrew Boxberger, the sewer district's attorney, said the idea of creating an advisory board came up during a December meeting that wasn't open to the public with city and council officials, as well as state Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne. The meeting followed the acquisition's failure at council.

If approved, the customer advisory board would receive comments and input from customers and property owners and make recommendations to the district board. The Allen County commissioners would appoint members from each township that is in the district's service area, but they will have to be district customers and live outside city limits.

Minor changes were made to the district board's representation. All five of Mayor Tom Henry's appointments will be City Utilities employees with four departments represented: finance, engineering, regulatory or legal and operations.

Two of the appointees from City Utilities will be required to live outside city limits.

Representation outside of the mayoral appointments remained unchanged with one representative each appointed by the commissioners, City Council, Woodburn and Allen County Council.

County officials will soon ask City Council to reconsider the acquisition. Janak said he hopes the changes will be enough to change at least one City Council member's vote from opposition to support.

“Quite frankly, I think that will take some time,” he said, noting the state's unofficial deadline of April.

Councilmen Jason Arp, R-4th; Glynn Hines, D-at large; Paul Ensley, R-1st; Russ Jehl, R-2nd; and Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, D-6th, voted in opposition of the acquisition in December.

The sewer district voted in favor of the new acquisition proposition with the only opposition from Tom Rotering, County Council's appointment to the board. Rotering shared several concerns before he said he wouldn't “belabor” the meeting any longer since he appeared to be the only opposing member.

Customers were originally told that equipment, such as grinder stations, would be provided at no cost to them, but Rotering said that isn't true with the agreement. Ric Zehr, district board president, said the plan – which includes maintenance of each grinder pump and one replacement – has been clearly communicated at public meetings with customers.

The meetings, Rotering said, included only current customers – not the thousands of county residents who aren't customers now but could be in the future as the service area expands. He said he's also concerned that the sewer district board members, who are not elected, are making decisions as important as the acquisition.

“Then we have side meetings and we come up with another voluntary board to look after the voluntary board, and that's the answer we come up with,” he said.

“That's not only concerning. That makes me scratch my head.”

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