McCLURE — Faced with demands from residents during Monday’s meeting, council set a joint committee meeting for tonight to review the feasibility of withdrawing from the Henry County Regional Water and Sewer District.
Around 15 residents attended the council meeting, with a handful sharing concern about the water situation in the village. In 2009, the village joined the Henry County Regional Water and Sewer District, turning over its water and sewer system, in addition to the debt associated with those systems. Earlier this year, the county district initiated a merger process with Northwestern Water and Sewer District, citing mounting financial obligations, as well as long-term issues regarding personnel and finding a more affordable water source. Both districts’ boards have since approved an operating agreement, meaning Northwestern assumes operations of the district as a final merger agreement is worked through over the upcoming months.
Residents also spoke to the county’s water and sewer board at its meeting last week, sharing concerns regarding meters not being read properly and residents receiving large bills earlier this year, as well as larger-than-normal bills without a change in usage.
“I just wanted to say that I know we all appreciate what the mayor and council does for us and our community, but my family is struggling with these water bills. I think we all are, and it’s hurting local businesses,” Katie Cohera said during Monday’s meeting. “I hear the rates are just going to go up and up. Frankly, we’re scared, I don’t know what else to say, and we need you to help us.”
Will Borck presented information he gathered on the county district and stated he believes the village should run its own water and sewer systems and could do so at a lower cost to residents. The district purchases water from the City of Napoleon at $9.58 per 1,000 gallons. Water rates for district customers in McClure are a $34.30 base rate that includes 500 gallons and an additional $17.63 per every additional 1,000 gallons. The difference in the two figures funds the county district’s operation and maintenance expenses, plus debt service from projects and improvements.
“I believe we need to get out from under the thumb of Henry County and the district and really go out on our own because right now we’re paying for everybody else and we can’t afford it,” Borck said.
Borck also stated he spoke with Napoleon City Manager Joel Mazur and he believes the village could purchase water at a lower rate than the water and sewer district does from the city.
“I know Napoleon is very interested in making a deal with us on selling us water,” he said. “I believe the Napoleon deal would be a small-time deal for the town so we can work on securing our water source.”
Mayor Dean Dawson said, if the village were to withdraw from the district, it would have to re-establish its water board, assume the village’s debt back from the district and figure out operations and material costs, including personnel because it would need its own licensed operator, if it were to take back the water and sewer systems.
Dawson originally proposed forming a commission to review those issues and have a recommendation within the next month, but multiple people in attendance argued there wasn’t enough time for that as the merger continues to move forward and encouraged council to vote to withdraw from the district immediately.
“I can say with confidence this council does not have the authority to leave tonight,” stated Paul Skaff, the village’s solicitor. “It’s my suggestion the Health and Safety Committee meet ASAP, get the numbers together and make a recommendation to council at its next meeting.”
Borck argued the withdrawal might ultimately be legally challenged, but asked what the ramifications would be if it moved forward.
“We would just be in the same place, correct?” he asked. “As far as I can tell, there’s no ramifications for them doing (it) and not having the legal authority, it would just be pulled back away.”
“I don’t like directing council to act without looking at all of the options, and it just doesn’t make any sense,” Skaff replied.
Borck added a vote could at least stop ongoing work pending a legal decision, but Skaff then asked whether water or services could also stop during that time.
Several residents also expressed concerns with the amount of work Northwestern is doing within the village, alleging the district is trying to add to the village’s debt, including the installation of radio read technology to water meters.
Borck and Nate Light, who works for the village and water and sewer district, both said the village should inform the Henry County district they don’t want Northwestern to perform work in the village.
“You guys need to decide if you want to put a committee together ... to decide if it’s feasible or not,” Light said. “Then you’re going to have to get a hold of Henry County Water and say, ‘No more red (Northwestern) trucks in McClure’ because they’re just blowing money.”
At its meeting last week, the Henry County Regional Water and Sewer Board amended the temporary operations agreement with Northwestern to allow for the installation of the radio read devices to reduce time spent reading meters and integrate with Northwestern’s billing system, as well as a way for customers to monitor usage. The cost is $75 per meter and approximately 450 meters will have the technology added to them.
Council President Kishwa Jenkins then motioned to set up a joint committee meeting between the Finance and Audit Committee and Public Health and Safety Committee to review the feasibility of withdrawing from the district, direct Dawson to speak with Mazur regarding a rate the village could purchase water from the city and try to stop Northwestern employees from working in the village. The motion passed 5-0, with Jenkins, Paul Gray, Jeromy Burt, George Miller and Larry Bahler in favor. Council member Craig Anderson was not in attendance at the meeting.
The two committees will meet at 8:30 p.m. tonight at the village building, and a special council meeting may be called later this week to discuss any recommendations from the meeting.
Following the meeting, Dawson said the village “possibly could” operate the water and sewer system on its own.
“I would like to see us have the opportunity. I think we could function under it,” he said. “Then again, it’s iffy.”