COLUMBIA CITY — The Whitley County Regional Water and Sewer District had its first official meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 20.

Chad Nix was elected as president of the board with Todd Nichols as vice-president. Randy Cokl agreed to sign on as secretary and Don Amber will assume the role of board treasurer.

With the administrative duties taken care of, the board jumped right into the evaluation of a slate of projects. Lana Beregszazi, from BCS Management, reminded the board of the three main criteria used in the “decision matrix” that the members should keep in mind when determining whether or not to advance a project forward.

“(The board) can use this as (its) guide,” Beregszazi said.

Those three criteria boil down to cost feasibility, resident survey responses and an environmental rating determined by Scott Wagner, the environmental health specialist from the Whitley County Department of Health.

The cost feasibility, as indicated by Beregszazi, would be determined by the cost of the project divided by the number of connections in that area. The ideal cost for a project, she stated, would be between $10,000 and $14,999. Costs below that, she added, would be ideal but rare.

In regards to the resident surveys, Beregszazi advised that the goal is to have at least 50 percent of residents in favor of the project.

Environmental health appeared to be one of the heaviest influencers for the project’s importance. Wagner was present at the meeting to inform the board of specific environmental concerns for each project proposed and gave each location rating between one and five, with five being the areas with the highest concern and, in turn, the most in need of attention from the board.

The board decided to move into the next phase for eight out of the nine projects presented. This will involve design and land acquisition for seven of the eight, with the Gateway East project getting permission to enter the feasibility investigation phase. The majority of projects approved had a five out of five environmental score, with some projects, like Stable Acres, having “severe” concerns such as flooding and past cases of E. coli in the water.

“This round of projects are the most severe environmentally,” Wagner said. “Of the 20 or so on the list, these proposed to the county are the most appropriate at this time.”

The one project that was not promoted is located at Blue River Estates. Although the price was right, there was only 10.65 percent resident approval and the environmental status stood at a three out of five, deeming it a non-emergency situation. The decision was made to keep the project in mind, and if the urgency changed, the board could always come back, re-evaluate and promote it forward.

Beregszazi also informed the board about three projects where cost was a bit of a concern. The projects in Laud, Coesse and Collamer, according to Beregszazi, are in areas of “extreme” economic repression. Coesse’s cost was within the criteria’s “sweet spot,” but it was evident that such a project may still be hard on the residents cost-wise. In addition, the Laud project had a high cost, ringing up at $33,571.

A solution proposed by Beregszazi involves the board applying for grants through the Indiana Office of Community Rural Affairs or the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies to help cover some of the expenses on these three projects.

“What we’re looking for from our end is the ability to make it affordable for all the rate payers,” Beregszazi said.

The board agreed that this was a good idea and in response voted 7-0 to move forward on Laud and Coesse, with a contingency placed on Laud that in order to continue, enough grant money needs to be raised to bring the cost down to the ideal, $10,000 to $14,999 level.

Two additional projects were discussed, but did not yet have a completed preliminary investigative report. Beregszazi stated that data for the project in Collamer and one at Joseph Decuis Regional in southern Whitley County would be presented for approval at the December meeting.

About six months have been allotted for the design and land acquisition phase and Beregszazi stated that they would be accepting bids soon for designers. Though she suggested a deadline of early January, if a number of bids came in earlier, Beregszazi encouraged the board to approve a bid earlier in the interest of time.

“I don’t want to lose a month of design,” Beregszazi said. “Everything has become urgent because of our delay (from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management).”

The development of a finalized rate is in the works, but there is still a need for more data to be input to predict the most accurate rate. In discussing finance, Amber clarified that the water and sewer board had not yet secured all of the funding for these projects.

In the meantime, Amber said, the county has agreed to front the money with the understanding that those monies will be paid back shortly after the board has received its own funding.