City and county leaders continue to discuss Fort Wayne City Utilities taking over the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District, a move that seems assured to lower rates for county customers. But the issue that derailed negotiations last year – board representation – remains a sticking point. And funding the takeover isn't a sure thing, either.
Under the current proposal, City Utilities would assume the district's debt and manage its customer service. Indiana Finance Authority's State Revolving Fund could contribute a grant to City Utilities for refinancing the district's $7 million debt with zero interest for 35 years, which would result in lower rates, reported The Journal Gazette's Devan Filchak.
“That is a sweetheart deal that we want to take advantage of if we can,” Chris Janak, the attorney assisting City Utilities in acquiring the district, said in January. “That's why you're able to take your rates from $120 down to $80. Without that, that would never happen.”
But winning a State Revolving Fund grant is no sure thing.
Fort Wayne City Council asked City Utilities in November to give the majority of board representation to county appointees before council members would approve the proposal. City Utilities Director Kumar Menon, however, said the board must have a majority of city representatives because the Regional Water and Sewer District would be city-owned.
The acquisition failed in December on a 5-4 vote after the district met without changing the makeup of the proposed board. Regional Water and Sewer District officials recently modified the proposed board's membership to match the current board. It has a county-appointed majority. But that modification didn't result in a change of opinion among most council members at last Tuesday's meeting.
President Jason Arp, R-4th District, was the only council member who originally opposed the proposal to support its reintroduction. He said his vote was made in support of further discussion and not the acquisition itself.
Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st District, is holding firm to his original opposition to the takeover without a board more representative of the customers.
“The overwhelming majority of the customers of the regional sewer district and the potential future customers of the regional sewer district are not within the city of Fort Wayne,” Ensley told The Journal Gazette Monday afternoon. “They can't vote for the mayor and can't vote for me or any of my colleagues on City Council. And so there is very little accountability or reason to act in their best interest.”
Ensley acknowledged there are a “handful” of city customers – those who weren't originally within city limits, but who now are Fort Wayne residents and are regional sewer district users – who would benefit from a City Utilities takeover. But he emphasized they are few.
Acquisition of the water and sewer district is not on the agenda for tonight's meeting, but Ensley said he anticipates a final vote on the proposal May 24.
After almost a year of debate, officials need to think sensibly rather than politically for the sake of the 3,150-plus people who need assurance rather than indecision. Getting this resolved would be a positive omen about future city-county cooperation rather than continued enmity.