Strip away all the regulatory mumbo-jumbo and the apparent failure of Huntertown’s bid for sewer sovereignty boils down to this:
Whatever its merits or faults, the town’s bid for its own sewage-treatment plant fell victim to the kind of Catch-22 that should leave most people shaking their heads in disbelief.
When an agency charged with protecting water quality cites “cost effectiveness” as a reason for denying a discharge permit, as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management did in this case, skepticism is in order. But when that decision ignores the very economic concerns that sparked Huntertown’s actions in the first place, incredulity may be a more appropriate response.
Simply stated, IDEM rejected the proposed $11 million plant near Lima and Hathaway roads after concluding that the resulting discharge of treated waste into the Geller Ditch is unnecessary because an affordable alternative is already available: Fort Wayne’s treatment plant.
Huntertown’s sewage is currently treated by Fort Wayne, and IDEM’s Paul Higgenbotham said “the reality is that the rates are reasonable – some of the lowest in the state.” Those rates fall well below the agency’s threshold for determining “cost effectiveness”: 2 percent of residents’ median income.
And that’s precisely the point, at least from Huntertown’s perspective. The town wasn’t pursuing its own plant based on what City Utilities is charging today, but on what residents may have to pay after Huntertown’s contract expires next year.
But the possibility – likelihood – of higher rates in the near future did not factor into IDEM’s decision. “We can’t base our decision on what might happen 10 years from now,” Higgenbotham said.
To which I say: Why not? As things now stand, Huntertown residents will have to pay more before their duly elected officials will be allowed to develop a potentially less-costly alternative.
“That’s bizarre,” said town attorney Dave Hawk. “I don’t want to put our customers on the spot like that.”
Ironically, Huntertown’s success in challenging earlier city rate increases may have undermined its chance for IDEM approval. In February, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that City Utilities must continue to bill Huntertown at a lower wholesale rate through the end of the contract despite city claims that it had given notice of intent to terminate the deal in 2002, allowing it to charge the town higher retail rates – something Huntertown officials say resulted in annual increases of about 8 percent.
City Utilities officials this year offered to cap annual increases at 3 percent for five years, but only if Huntertown also buys its water from Fort Wayne – something the town does not want to do since it already operates its own water utility.
What’s more, Huntertown officials don’t want their residents to be billed for more than $240 million in upgrades to Fort Wayne’s sewage system mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The city discharges untreated sewage into the rivers during periods of heavy rain.
Take economics out of the picture and you’re left with the environmental question: Would Huntertown’s proposed plant be more harmful to the environment than continuing its contract with Fort Wayne?
IDEM’s Steve Roush said Huntertown’s discharge of treated waste would increase the level of pollutants in the Geller Ditch, which empties into the Eel River. True, but Huntertown’s treated waste now ends up in Fort Wayne’s rivers. The discharge standards for both plants would be the same, he said, even though dilution levels might differ.
I’m not saying IDEM is wrong to conclude that City Utilities’ current rate represents a good deal for Huntertown. But shouldn’t that decision have also considered possible future rate increases or been based on a long-term rate commitment from Fort Wayne? And, really, who’s best qualified to decide what is “cost effective” for Huntertown: State bureaucrats 150 miles away or the people elected by and accountable to town residents?
Fort Wayne officials, clearly, have tried to maintain a dialogue with their Huntertown counterparts. “But they don’t negotiate, they dictate,” Hawk said. Whether that perception is accurate or not, City Utilities clearly has less reason to negotiate now than it did before IDEM’s decision.
It’s a decision that transcends tiny Huntertown, because IDEM acknowledges that the cost threshold creates a “high bar” for other municipalities seeking utility independence. That may be good or bad, but should such important issues really be decided by rules that refuse to consider the future?