Sewer board, Decatur to keep talking

    Negotiations are continuing between the Adams County Regional Sewer District board and the city of Decatur pertaining to sewage treatment costs for a proposed $4.5 million sewer project to serve the outlying areas of Monmouth, Bobo, Pleasant Mills and Arcadia Village.
    While those talks are ongoing, however, regional sewer board members on Tuesday were urged to look at other options — including the possibility of sending sewage to Berne — to make the proposed sewer project as cost effective as possible.
    The regional sewer district board met Tuesday afternoon at the Riverside Center and received an update on negotiations with the city of Decatur that were suggested at last month's meeting.
    Board member Tim Barkey, a member of the negotiating committee, said Decatur officials "in a nutshell have proposed to allow the (regional sewer) district to utilize 'in-city' rates" for the treatment of sewage generated by customers of the county district.
    Commonwealth Engineering representative Ben Adams said he would prefer the city to treat the rural sewer district "just like any other large-capacity user" and offer additional rate reductions. And Steve Carter, a rate consultant with the Plymouth-based H.J. Umbaugh and Associates firm, said of Decatur's offer, "this is not a common agreement that's being proposed — that's a simple fact."
    That rate as suggested by Decatur officials, said Adams, would result in an annual charge to the rural district of some $91,000 and would add $8 to the $24 monthly per-customer treatment fee originally anticipated by the regional sewer board.
    Adams said the district had anticipated annual sewage treatment charges of $70,000 for the sewer district set up to service some 233 rural customers. He said Decatur officials have agreed to continue negotiations in good faith "to keep the project as affordable as possible."
    Some initial estimates have estimated that total monthly rates for customers of the regional sewer district could reach or exceed $100, but Adams said is it "very premature to discuss final rates until the project is bid."
    Decatur Mayor John Schultz, a member of the regional sewer board, stressed to his fellow board members that Decatur City Council will soon be asked to approve its own sewage rate hike, "and we have got to make sure the people outside the city aren't paying less than city residents" for sewage treatment. The amount of the city's rate hike has not yet been determined.
    Board attorney Mark Burry urged the county sewer board to look at other options and to examine similar municipal rate structures and inter-governmental agreements already in place in other northern Indiana    cities and towns.
    "The members of this board have to make sure whatever rate we agree upon is fair and reasonable, in relation to this project," said Burry. "It is incumbent upon this board to deliberate and look at other rates and arrangements and see what sort of rate structures are out there. It's not as simple as saying we can't be charged less than is being charged to the residents of the city of Decatur.
    "We need to find out sooner rather than later if that is (Decatur's) bottom line," said Burry. The board attorney recommended the board look at all its options, including sending its sewage flow south to Monroe and on to Berne for treatment.
    "Within the next 30 days I think we will have some final (rate) numbers," said Schultz. "But if you want to look at going to Monroe, I can't blame you. I respect the decisions this board has to make."
    The fledgling regional sewer board is attempting to get up and running following its receipt of a $2 million rural development grant earmarked to construct sewer lines to serve designated rural areas northern Adams County.
    "This is a big deal," said Burry. "You have $2.5 million in grant funding that you don't have to pay back, and another $2 million in low-interest loans being offered. I think we need to do more research, and if our only option is with the city of Decatur, then we can put together a proposal (for sewage treatment costs) and present it to them. The city can always say 'no.'
    "If that happens, this board may decide not to do any project, and the (grant) money goes back to the state," said Burry. "This board does not have the attitude of 'full steam ahead, regardless of the costs.' This project doesn't have to happen. 'No' is always an option. If we are able to come to an agreement, hopefully it will be something that everyone can live with."
    But other board members said that ignoring mandates from state environmental officials to address rural sewage issues could have a negative future impact on the county.
    County health sanitarian and sewer district board member Terry Smith said Indiana Department of Environmental Management officials "will look strangely at us if we refuse $2 million in low-interest loans."
    "And turning down a $2 million grant is not something you want to do," said Barkey.
    "I'd love to say 'forget it,'" said board chairman Barry Scherer. "But what happens if in five years they mandate that we do something?"
    Adams said, "I think we need to continue to negotiate (with Decatur) in good faith and hope we continue to move forward."
    The board's next meeting will be an evening session planned for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, at Riverside Center.