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Bill looks to mediate city, Huntertown clash

– State lawmakers passed legislation Wednesday meddling in a clash between Fort Wayne and Huntertown over sewer services.

“It’s a tough situation when you only have one place to get your service and you have to negotiate a contract,” said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington. “I kind of feel on this bill we’re just arbitrators on the dispute.

“We are picking sides for the little guy, thinking the big city can handle itself.”

He encouraged the chamber to let the dust settle on the matter and decide next year what the best public policy was for the state.

But the House passed Senate Bill 385 by a vote of 60-33.

Rep. David Wolkins, R-Winona Lake – sponsor of the legislation – conceded he is not comfortable with the bill currently and hopes both sides come to an agreement without legislative intervention. But he asked his colleagues to keep the bill alive in case. Wolkins said the original intent of Senate Bill 385 was to allow contract disputes involving wholesale sewage service to be reviewed by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. Right now only the courts can resolve the issue.

But an amendment added Tuesday also limits how involved the city of Fort Wayne can get in an appeal before IDEM. It says a utility that provides wholesale sewage service may not intervene or use utility funds or assets in that proceeding.

Most local representatives supported the measure. Rep. Rebecca Kubacki, R-Syracuse, voted no. Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, was excused because he works for Fort Wayne as utilities services manager.

Huntertown officials, in response to rapid growth and substantial rate hikes from Fort Wayne City Utilities, were hoping to build and operate their own $11.2 million sewage plant. They planned to break ties with Fort Wayne City Utilities, which has provided the town with sewer service since 1988. That contract will expire in April.

But in October the Indiana Department of Environmental Management denied Huntertown’s request to build its own plant, saying it would cause significant pollution to Geller Ditch, where the treated water was to be discharged.

The agency also said other cost-effective measures are currently available that would allow Huntertown to increase its wastewater capacity. In addition to sending its waste to City Utilities for processing as it currently does, Huntertown could also build an equalization basin, allowing the town to add new connections to the system. Such an effort would cost the town about $4 million to build.

Huntertown is currently appealing the IDEM finding.

The bill would apply statewide but is aimed at the Fort Wayne-Huntertown dispute.

Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, offered the amendment even though Huntertown is not in his district.

“Fort Wayne should not be able to interfere when the citizens of a town want their own plant,” he said.

“In the end, it’s the citizens who are hurt the most. They’re the ones paying for it.”

Kumar Menon, Fort Wayne’s director of City Utilities, said utilities across the state are watching the bill closely, especially a separate provision that clarifies language on annexation waivers.

He also said the amendment bans the city from giving any input on a case that directly affects them. And if it makes it easier for satellite systems to peel off and start their own, smaller systems, Menon said, it will raise costs for everybody.

“You’re preventing people from representing the best interests of the region,” he said. “Every economic advisory group will tell you this is a bad idea.”

Huntertown Council President Sue Gongwer said the bill is about keeping utility charges fair and equitable.

Dan Stockman and Vivian Sade of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.