CHURUBUSCO — Churubusco put the nail in the coffin of its relationship with the Regional Sewer District at a special meeting held by the Town Council last week.
After much discussion and input from community members, the council voted unanimously to move forward with expanding its own sewer service to nearby residents in need, rather than working through the Whitley County Regional Sewer District.
Several residences south of Churubusco are in desperate need of sewer service. At least 90% of septic systems in some areas outside the town limits are considered to be in “failure.”
Though some may still be “working,” most are not certified by the health department and would not pass inspection. Residents are left between a rock and a hard place — either spending thousands of dollars to replace and fix their current septic systems, or getting hooked up to a sewer line. Though the issues have been going on for years, soon residents will not have a choice — the health department could begin filing violations and condemning homes.
Whether the town provides sewer or sewer is provided by the RSD — something needs to happen, and it needs to happen soon. Unfortunately, that will come at a cost for those residents.
“I feel you — I get it — I wouldn’t want to be paying either. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to help a community out that I believe really needs help right now. This is going to sound harsh, but we don’t have to run sewer out there. We could let it sit there, and that’s fine, but if we do that and it (failing septics) continues to happen, they’ll go in and start condemning houses.”
The Town Council spent more than an hour discussing the topic last Wednesday, considering whether it should move forward with an agreement with the RSD, to allow an outside district to manage the sewer project, or whether the town should take it on itself.
“I’ve waxed an waned on this issue,” Council President Mark Pepple said. “I’m not saying I’m for or against it (RSD), but there are pluses and minuses to both.”
Had the town elected to work with the RSD, the outside district would be responsible for the infrastructure required to run sewer lines from homes outside the town limits to Churubusco’s wastewater plant.
The addition of new sewer utility customers, whether through the Regional Sewer District or directly through the town, will bring added stress to the wastewater plant, which is already nearing capacity.
Bob Gray, wastewater superintendent, indicated that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management will likely expect the town to put in another basin and/or make other changes to keep the plant from discharging untreated sewage into the environment.
In addition, Gould suggests that the clarifiers need cleaned ($90,000), all four lift stations need generators ($200,000), the four lift meters need redone and cleaned ($80,000), a pole barn will likely need to be constructed, and new land would need to be acquired for a bigger basin.
The town may be able to mitigate some of its capacity issues by separating storm and sewer water in problem areas, but it is unclear how much help that would be.
“It would help eliminate it, but it is still a problem,” said Jeremy Hart, town supervisor.
Originally, Pepple said he didn’t believe the town could manage the cost of such a project on it’s own, but Clerk-Treasurer Madalyn Sade-Bartl ran the numbers and provided the council with options.
If the town takes on the project itself, it would need about a $2.5 million bond. The state offers a 20-year bond, which currently has “extremely low” interest rates, according to Sade-Bartl. Additionally, as the town’s grant writer, Sade-Bartl may be able to obtain funds to help offset costs.
If the town simply provides sewer service to those 75 homes in need, payments for the bond will be split between those new utility customers at a cost of about $131, whereas the average town utility customer has a bill between $100 and $150, which includes water, sewer and trash.
Though those new customers would be paying much higher prices, town officials say the burden of the new project should not fall on the shoulders of current town residents. Regardless, new utility customers would need to pay a $2,500 tap fee, which could be spread out across multiple utility bills.
“If we didn’t pass the fees to the people out there, it would fall back on the town people,” Pepple said. “You’re not annexed out there. People in town are already paying property taxes, as well as user fees. There has to be a balance.”
Some residents spoke up about the potential benefit of those areas being annexed into the town — where they can receive the full benefits of being a town resident at a likely similar cost to what they will incur with the potential new sewer bill anyway.
However, at every turn, officials say the residents south of the town limits have fought town officials on an annexation.
“We’ve had a lot of pushback since 1984 when we tried the first time,” Sade-Bartl said. “We tried again in the early 2000s, and threw it around in 2015 and had a lot of pushback then.”
If annexed, eventually the town would provide all utility services to the area, as well as snow removal, trash service, street maintenance and more.
However, voluntary annexations require than more than 75 percent of the residents are on-board with the annexation.
Pepple offered that the Town Council could host community meetings to thoroughly discuss the pros and cons of annexation.
“We’re open to having a public forum to talk about it. I hope you’re seeing that we’re being transparent and we will continue to be that way,” Pepple said.
Regardless of which steps forward are chosen — only providing sewer or going through a voluntary annexation — it may be a year or more before the homes are actually connected to the town’s sewer system.