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Aqua Indiana serves about 12,000 water customers in Aboite Township. Its former northern system is now city-owned.

Question of value

Last week’s Indiana Supreme Court decision on the complex legal case involving City Utilities’ takeover of the northern Aqua Indiana utility was a victory for the private company. And it should be an incentive for both sides to settle their dispute over that sale and the city’s plans to buy the southwest Aqua Indiana system.

The five justices unanimously agreed that the courts – not the city’s Board of Public Works – will determine the proper price for the city’s takeover of the northern utility a decade ago. The board of works ultimately set the value, based on two appraisals, at $16.9 million, but Aqua Indiana claims the price should be much higher. The high court’s decision overturned previous rulings by a special judge in Wells County and the state appeals court.

Unless the two sides can reach agreement, a jury trial will determine the purchase price. And that ruling will most likely go to the appeals court, and that ruling will very likely go back to the Supreme Court – which has already ruled twice on other aspects of the case. The legal bills are piling up, and the customers of City Utilities and Aqua Indiana will pay them.

Justice Robert Rucker’s decision emphasized the rights of property owners, noting that “the inviolability of private property has been a central tenet of American life since before this country’s founding.” This right is so long-standing, the court cited the Northwest Ordinance – written in 1787, before the U.S. Constitution – which demanded that “should the public exigencies make it necessary, for the common preservation, to take any person’s property or to demand his particular services, full compensation shall be made for the same.”

So a decade after the city began efforts to take over the northern Aqua utility by eminent domain, the process of determining the amount of “full compensation” is in some ways just beginning.

Southwest Aqua customers who want City Utilities water service can only hope for a settlement.