The Journal Gazette
Thursday, November 25, 2021 1:00 am

Sewer district sale in jeopardy

Customers would save if city takes over

DEVAN FILCHAK | The Journal Gazette

The Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District board recognized Wednesday it might not be acquired by Fort Wayne City Utilities.

City Utilities and the 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 customers. City Utilities is looking to get at least $5 million from the state revolving fund to add to $5 million from Allen County Commissioners, both of which will help lower rates.

Fort Wayne City Council has asked City Utilities to give the majority of board representation to county representatives before the council will pass the acquisition. City Council first tabled the request Nov. 16 after Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, said the majority of the board's members need to be appointed by the county because the sewer district serves county residents.

The acquisition, which was presented with a city-dominated sewer board, failed to be approved in the council's committee session Tuesday. In the regular meeting, Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, suggested it be tabled until a special meeting Dec. 7 in case the proposed board's representation is changed.

The sewer district board reconvened in a special meeting for the second time this week Wednesday. Three minutes before the noon meeting started, Ric Zehr, the board's president, said he wanted to check in with the board before they went on the record to determine how transparent they should be during the public meeting.

The members had a brief discussion about who had seen the City Council meeting and what position the district is in before Zehr formally started the meeting. Matthew Wirtz and Tom Rotering were absent. 

After the meeting, Andy Boxberger, the board's attorney, said he does not think the discussion before the meeting officially started was a violation of Indiana's public access laws.

Even though Zehr said he wanted to address the topic before going on the record, Boxberger said that isn't what Zehr meant.

“What he said was not actually what was happening,” Boxberger said. “It was open to the public. The public was here. They were able to listen. They were able to hear.”

Luke Britt, state public access counselor, said the meeting appears to have violated the Open Door Law. Any time the majority of a board has a discussion, it's considered to be a meeting.

All meetings are required to be held in public with 48-hour notice. Meetings cannot start until the advertised time because community members who want to watch the meeting might not be there yet.

During the meeting, Boxberger advised the sewer district's board members to plan on the acquisition not going through.

“I do think it'd be prudent of the district to continue operations,” he said.

Kevin McDermit, the board's vice president, said he understands why Zehr mentioned before the meeting that it was confusing as to why City Council tabled the request rather than voting on it, even if it would have failed.

The board proposed by City Utilities for the sewer district would have nine members: five members appointed by Mayor Tom Henry and one appointment each by City Council, Woodburn, Allen County Council and the Allen County commissioners.

Kumar Menon, City Utilities director, has said the board must have more city than county representatives because the city will have taken on the sewer district's debt and will manage all customers' sewer services. The sewer district board will be used for grant opportunities and to extend service to any interested county customers farther than 10 miles outside of the city.

Zehr said he doesn't understand the City Council's issues with the board's makeup because it doesn't affect the service sewer district customers receive. The acquisition would lower each customers' rate by about $600 a year – $1.8 million annually in savings.

The board needs to be ready to send letters to its more than 3,000 customers, Zehr said, to explain why the rates aren't being lowered as previously discussed.

“This is devastating,” he added.

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