By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin
ELWOOD, Ind. — ELWOOD — In a critical meeting June 3, the Elwood City Council unanimously voted to approve a rate hike for water and sewer utility services.
The rate increase is unpopular among both ratepayers and officials, but there seemed to be a consensus and a realization that the increase needed to happen. Elwood still operates under a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), a water treatment system that was outlawed under the Clean Water Act because of the negative environmental impact they create.
Having been built in the 1940s and with its newest equipment coming from the 1970s, Elwood’s system is even more antiquated than some other still-extant CSOs around the country.
The current system has to go, and while officials like Mayor Ron Arnold and City Council members Tim Roby and Todd Jones said they are loathe to raise utility rates, they agree the increases must happen to bring the city to code.
The solution that comes with the rate increases is a brand-new water treatment facility to be built starting 2014 and expected to be operational by 2015. This is what city officials have dubbed Phase 2 of the upgrade.
Phase 1 must come first, and involves making the current water treatment equipment up to date with state code. Phase 1, a $7-million project, was approved June 3, with estimations the average utility user will see sewer rates go from about $28.33 a month to $34.99 a month and water rates go from about $21.56 a month to $26.67 a month.
As Arnold said, the city cannot just tell state inspectors to “wait until we have the new plant.” And that is the reason for Phase 1 increases.
“We had an IDEM inspection in June 2012 which cited a dozen violations, each with penalties, and it was going to be significant. We were getting ready to be fined and we had a choice: accept the penalties or fix the problems. Well, it wasn’t much of a choice.”
Arnold said the penalties for noncompliance would have made the rate increases more severe.
“If you just fix your problems, it’s easier than paying fines,” the mayor said.
The City Council is on board with the increases and the new water treatment plant, but some of them have expressed trepidation for how the funds raised are being spent.
“How much of it is fluff?” Jones, councilman of District 2, asked during the meeting.
Jones was referring to almost $450,000 of the project he and other council members deemed questionable. The council asked the Indiana State Board of Accounts to audit the project earlier in the year, and in March received a soft audit containing a few issues that gave them pause.
Some of the items from the audit include payments made to an Alan Moore, LLC questioning its relation to the project, “in-service days” for project personnel and vehicle and cellphone benefits provided to employees.
Jones said he’s fine with the project as long as everything indicated in the budget is going toward what it should, but he wants the city to be true to its ratepayers.
Arnold said the funds in question were all used appropriately as part of the goal to bring the current plant up to standard.
“Some citizens have been throwing that number around but we’ve used it all as part of complying with the state’s order,” Arnold said.
Another wave of rate increases will be on the way once the city reaches Phase 2 and construction of the new plant begins at the beginning of 2014. According to estimates, average sewer rates will raise another $7.69 to $42.68 a month and average water rates another $2.77 to $29.44 a month.