Clean water costs millions in Muncie
By Rick Yencer
MUNCIE, IN - The Muncie Sanitary District is proposing a huge increase in sewage utility and storm water fees to do millions of dollars of work required by federal clean water law and a local court order.
This incredible $160 million price tag to separate combined storm and sanitary sewers has been looming for years, and now local sewage utility customers and district property owners will pay dearly for years of neglect and delay to finish keeping White River clean.
The double whammy includes storm water fees going from 95-cents to $6 a month to raise as much as $4 million for storm water work. Sewage utility fees would raise 29 percent this year, from $32.94 a quarter to $42.48. That would raise $18 million yearly for separation work. Over the next five years, tack on another 30 percent hike making that rate $56.79 a quarter by 2016.
Sanitary Board President Tom Bennington, a Republican holdover from the former McShurley administration, did not want to talk too much about the huge fee hikes until a March 6 public hearing. The sanitary board that also includes attorney Steve Murphy and bank executive Teresa Ford. At that time, look for the board, appointed by the mayor, to take quick to impose the fee hikes this year.
The only people standing in the way of a quick introduction of the huge fee hikes on Tuesday were members of the old United Taxpayers Association once led by the late Richard Amburn, and Basil Davis Sr. There were none of those so called Good Government guys around Tuesday that blindly supported the McShurley administration that left millions of dollars of work undone by the sanitary district.
Steve Fields, one of the remaining members of United Taxpayers, objected to the huge increases and offered several options to raising sewage and storm water fees. Why not use economic development income tax funds as seed money for grants or use a state revolving fund to borrow money against local tax or utility revenue, Fields asked. Fields, a member of the Yorktown Town Council, also raised concerns about costs passed on to the Yorktown sewage utility and other district customers living in Mount Pleasant Township.
Others who heard about the huge fee increases also objected to the district's move like David Taylor, a realtor and former members of Muncie City Council. Taylor worried about the impact on homeowners besides how higher storm water and sewage utility fees would affect the housing market. And Mayor Dennis Tyler, who has authority to remove sanitary board members, also opposed the fee hikes, also saying the district should look at other alternatives.
Again, Bennington said the district would not offer explanation until the public hearing, leaving Fields and others to wonder how government could impose fees or taxes with little notice and no public around. The agenda for Tuesday's meeting was only made public a couple hours before and not 48 hours in advance as required by state open meetings law.
In recent years, there's been no public accountability of the sanitary district that apparently was sued by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for delays in implementing a long range plan to separate storm and sanitary sewers according to federal clean water law. That suit was briefly mentioned by Bennington and Murphy who later indicated he did not want to raise fees if it was not necessary.
Barbara Smith, sanitary district administrator, said the district could not do the work with the money it had now, even thought the district is funded by millions of dollars in property taxes and sewage utility fees. The last time sewage utility fees went up was in 2008 for a multi-million dollar renovation of Muncie's wastewater treatment plant that handles millions of gallons in sewage yearly.
The federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and was lauded by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and others as requiring cities clean up rivers and lakes from industrial pollution and raw sewage. Forty years later, many communities still have not done a fraction of the work amid rules changes, lawsuits and state environmental reviews.
The sanitary district embarked on a long term control plan to eliminate combined sewer overflows in the river and Buck Creek years ago and submitted a plan to IDEM in 2002. The final update came in last August with a a court order mandating its completion in the next 20 years. Muncie is not alone as more than 800 communities in the United States face similar costs. In Indiana, South Bend could spend up to $500 million to separate storm and sanitary sewers while the cost to Indianapolis is right at $1 billion.
Smith said the district has been proactive in recent years repairing 10 flooding areas since 2007 at the cost of $5 million funded by a revenue bond. Some of the biggest projects in the $160 million plan include separation of combined sewers that flow into Buck Creek at Cowan Road along with an old primary outlet sewer that runs under Beech Grove Cemetery to White River.
Utility customers and property owners can review the plan and its tremendous cost at www.munciesanitary.org.