FORT WAYNE – Residents will have their chance to sound off Tuesday night on the city’s proposal to take over Aqua Indiana’s southwest water utility.
The Fort Wayne City Council will conduct a public hearing on the condemnation proposal, which, if approved, would begin the process of a city takeover. Aqua Indiana serves about 12,000 customers in southwest Fort Wayne.
The hearing is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in City Council Chambers, Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry St., and any resident who wishes to address the council will be given two minutes to speak. Those who preregistered with the City Clerk’s office will go first but anyone who wants to speak will be heard, officials said.
As of late Friday afternoon, 14 people had signed up to speak, the Clerk’s office said.
After the public testimony, the city administration and Aqua Indiana will each give 45-minute presentations. Then the council will consider the ordinance and could give it both preliminary and final approval.
Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd, said the council wants to hear everything the public has to say but added he will also recognize when it gets repetitive and will ask for a show of hands from the audience on those who agree or disagree rather than having people say the same things over and over.
Mayor Tom Henry announced the condemnation proposal in November, citing a long history of citizen complaints about water quality, quantity and pressure and high rates. He said the city cannot tolerate poor service in such a critical area when it can provide better water in greater quantity, at higher pressure and lower rates.
Aqua Indiana officials say they receive few complaints and have addressed issues with infrastructure improvements.
The city and Aqua Indiana had been in negotiations for a purchase but could not agree on price; the issue came to a head this summer when a severe drought forced Aqua Indiana to connect to Fort Wayne’s water supply and City Utilities served about 10 percent of Aqua’s customers for several months.
The city took over Aqua Indiana’s north system several years ago, but that takeover is still being hammered out – aspects of the case have been before the state Supreme Court twice and the dispute spurred a change in state law in how condemnations are handled. A decision on whether the $16.9 million the city paid Aqua for that system was determined correctly is expected soon. Aqua officials contend the north system was worth up to $40 million.
Aqua Indiana says its southwest system is worth about $60 million, a price they contend would require the city to impose a rate hike.
Is it right for 14 percent of City Utilities customers to get the benefit of a takeover and the other 86 percent to pay for it? asked Aqua Indiana President Tom Bruns. Our calculations show there would need to be some sort of rate increase.
City officials dispute that, saying the system is worth much less than what Aqua contends and that their economies of scale will enable them to not only pay for the purchase but come out slightly ahead. State law at the time of the north system takeover would have allowed the city to charge just the new customers a special fee to pay for the purchase, but that was never done because the increase in customers and the city’s dramatically lower costs paid for the purchase and the city still came out ahead, even though the rates it charges customers for water are about 25 percent lower than Aqua’s.
If the council approves the condemnation, the first step would be to get appraisals of the southwest system. If the price is too high, city officials say, the council can simply vote not to proceed.
But Aqua officials are pushing for the council to do an appraisal. We feel the current process lumps everything together and doesn’t give council a chance to change its mind later on, Bruns said. The way the ordinance is written, this is the only time the council considers or votes on it until it’s over.