By BOB SHRALUKA
Okay. We're about to rant. If you prefer not to read a rant, then please turn the page, put down your paper, or simply lean back and snooze. 'Cause here goes the rant:
We, the taxpayers of Decatur, Indiana, have paid a fortune —an absolute fortune — over the past 10-plus years to comply with the wishes of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and its Great White Father, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To the everlasting credit of former mayor Fred Isch and his city council, including current Mayor John Schultz, this city aggressively met all of IDEM's demands to separate our sanitary and storm waters.
We cut off our downspouts, paid millions for a pair of major sewer projects, lived through the hassle of having streets torn up all over our city, and took a few hits with some shoddy work. We got rid of most of our Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) and constructed what is essentially a new sewage treatment plant. It was a pain, a big, expensive pain, but we got 'er done, baby; and way, way ahead of just about every other Indiana community, nearly all of whom have been burdened with the same unfunded mandate from IDEM.
And you know, once it was done, it felt sort of good. The city was doing the right thing for the environment, severely limiting "dirty" water pouring into the St. Marys River.
Now, though, IDEM and the EPA are back knocking on our doors and they want less and more. Less storm water overflowing into the St. Marys — with three CSOs left, it happens about as often as the Super Bowl comes to Indianapolis — and more money to fix it. Lots more money. Lots and lots more money. The bottom line is obvious: we taxpayers will have to fork over lots of cash, probably in higher city water rates, to prevent a once-in-a-while occurrence (or every 10 years, as IDEM labels it).
Decatur's first two phases of sewer upgrading "were extremely effective, but doesn't get you to where IDEM wants you to be," Commonwealth Engineer Ben Adams — the bearer of the bad tidings — said at Tuesday's council meeting. "It (the overflow) has been reduced significantly, but it's not gone."
The anger coming from city officials was hanging heavy in the air of council chambers.
Hardly a good time
It's like, don't these people understand that the economy's in the tank? That folks in these parts, like most Hoosiers, are hurting? Don't they realize that communities like ours have taken all sorts of revenue hits, due in part to tax caps placed upon them by lawmakers sucking up to some of the rich folk in Indianapolis and its environs? Don't they grasp the fact that this kind of folly can drive a city like ours into the red?
Tell IDEM what to do with its unfunded mandate? Yeh, sure, then they sock you with big fines and, if it comes to it, take away various permits. So city officials have no choice, really, other than to ... well, we don't want to say bend over because that would be too crude for a family newspaper.
This all comes at a time when the city is getting its financial feet solidly on the ground once again. Higher fees and tightening of budgets has helped a great deal, as have savings produced by many city department heads. But the recovery is tenuous. A major money burden like a new sewer project could put us back nearer the edge of the slippery slope, higher fees or not.
Commonwealth's Adams offered up some suggestions as to tweaks here and there which might satisfy IDEM. But that will require a six-figure layout — likely $100,000 to $150,000; architects don't work cheap — for testing and examining. When it's all done, IDEM might well say, '"Sorry, but a good try!" So the six-figure payoff will wash into the river faster than rainfall and the cost of a major project lies ahead.
Some tough decisions are directly ahead. Sadly, it appears some tough financial burdens for Decatur residents are in the near future, too.