2014-02-22 / News

Thornville won’t budge on sewer contract

By Scott Rawdon

THORNVILLE – Village officials are happy with the terms of a 15-year contract to provide sewer service to Northern Perry County, despite the Perry County Commissioners’ plea to make changes.

Monday night, Thornville Village Council members voted 3 to 2 to maintain the current contract following Commissioner Ed Keister’s request to drop a compounding five percent increase in annual payments.

In 2007, former county commissioners Thad Cooperrider, Fred Shriner, and Lonnie Wood approved a contract to pay $50,000 that year for Thornville’s sewer service. When the contract ends in 2022, Perry County will be paying Thornville $98,996.58 a year thanks to the compounding five percent annual increases. The contract includes a provision that it can be reviewed every two years. Perry County has roughly eight years remaining on the contract.

None of the commissioners that originally approved the contract are still in office. The current commissioners want to remove the annual five percent increase.

In a letter to Thornville Administrator Beth Patrick, Keister said, “The current sewer agreement has language the county feels is being misinterpreted from the intent of the original agreement. We feel a $50,000 annual payment plus $2.25 per 1,000 gallons treated is a fair and equitable rate. Our review of the village’s annual reports shows the (Thornville) sewer department has accumulated $230,167.76 in profit from 2007 to 2012. Thus, the village can meet its expenses and capital expenditures without compounding a five percent increase in the annual payment.”

“The five percent is just getting to us,” said Keister during the special Thornville council meeting Monday night. He said the housing boom expected for Perry County in 2008 simply didn’t happen.

County officials made a partial payment toward its current installment, saying some payment was withheld to prompt a meeting with council to discuss the situation.

“I sort of interpret this as a breach of contract,” said council member Dale Brussee. He asked county officials if they believe they now have an option to withhold money if they believe the payment is too expensive.

Tony Fiore, an attorney representing Perry County, said that wasn’t the case. He said a partial payment was withheld to promote a meeting between Thornville and the county, which is provided for in the contract, and to stop the situation from going into mediation, which would cost money for everyone.

“I find it hard to go into the future trusting and believing you,” Brussee responded.

“It’s not that we’re trying to hold money from you,” said Fiore, who didn’t agree that the village has had more than one previous formal meeting with the county to discuss the situation. “Just saying everything’s fine, that’s not a meeting,” he said.

Just because Thornville has a surplus in its sewer account, doesn’t mean the county can withhold money, said Brussee. “You’re forcing us to go into mediation.” He said the village told the county it’s satisfied with the existing contract. Further discussion would be held in mediation.

“We understand the village isn’t in this to lose money,” said ME Companies Project Manager Mitch Altier. “If it continues as it is, the county will be forced to look at other options.” He said he realizes Thornville has bills. “We’re trying to get to something you guys can live with.”

Thornville Fiscal Officer Melissa Tremblay said at one point Thornville’s sewer fund was $180,000 in debt. “We were bare bones,” she said. “To get out of the hole, we cut back. No one was here when we were in the hole” to help the village out of it, said Tremblay.

Altier was clear that the county can’t continue with the contract as it is.

Brussee said the county is paying Thornville less than if it had built its own sewer plant to service Northern Perry County.

Altier said the existing contract has several versions.

“How you see it is how it was given to us,” said Brussee, adding that Cooperrider presented it to the village. “We’re planning for the future.”

Keister said the county would be forced to raise rates for Perry County customers continually if the contract isn’t changed. “It’s the five percent that’s being compounded” that the problem, he said.

Altier said Perry County has been in talks with Licking County for service if nothing can be worked out with Thornville.

Brussee said all parties agreed upon everything in the contract.

Altier said if the county makes changes to its sewer service, “They could drastically affect the village. We would like to negotiate. That compounding five percent will be too much that they can bear.”

Patrick said Tuesday that the village shouldn’t be penalized for being fiscally responsible. There is a surplus in the sewer account, but it’s slated for future expenses and projects. “We have a surplus, so they want to reduce the five percent,” said Patrick. “They have other projects they want to do. How do they pay for those? For now, the contract stands as it was written.” She said the village has no future meetings scheduled with Perry County on the subject. Patrick said village has met with county officials on several occasions since 2011 regarding changing the contract, and the answer has always been the same – Thornville is happy with the existing contract.

Patrick said she understands the current commissioners were not in office when the contract was signed. “You kind have to live with it,” she said, adding that the county put in the five percent increase, and the county’s legal advisors signed off on it. “We signed the contract in good faith, as they did,” said Patrick.

Keister said Tuesday that the county is only protecting the residents of Thornport and vicinity whom the Thornville sewer plant serves. “We’re looking out for them,” he said. “It’s just too bad. We’re looking for a win, win for everyone.” Keister said, “Thornville’s got the ball in their hands,” and Perry County continues to talk to Licking County as an option. Unless Thornville has a change of heart, Keister said Perry County would be forced to explore its options.

Licking County Water and Wastewater Director Kevin Eby confirmed Licking County has had some discussion with Perry County’s engineer. He said there’s a possibility a sewer line could be run beneath Buckeye Lake to a connection point near Cranberry Bay, but it wouldn’t be cheap.

Eby said Perry County asked for a bulk sewer rate, which would still need to be determined. So, for now Licking County is considering a bulk rate and what construction would be required to accommodate Northern Perry County’s needs. “We are open to that option, if it is a viable option,” he said. Eby said there are no formal meetings scheduled with Perry County as of Wednesday.

“Currently the village is in a contract for sewer services through 2022. We believe that this is an affordable option for (Perry) County despite their concerns over the five percent annual increase,” said Thornville Mayor Gavin Renner in an email to The Beacon. “The water services contract is at a point where either party can review rates. Again, the village rate for water is comparatively low and we feel this is an affordable option for the county.”

Renner continued, “Should the county decide to make a change, this would impact the village. Last year the county paid about $248,000 to the village for water and sewer contracts. Not having this amount would require the village to take a more fiscally conservative stance. The village has built up a cash reserve over the past 10 years. There would be some time to make decisions on how to handle a change. However, the intent of this surplus is to meet our goals for significant repairs and maintenance to the system. The village would have to determine how to pay for significant repairs should they occur if our budget is impacted due to a change.

“We sympathize with the plight of the county and Northern Perry County Water District customers,” said Renner. “In the past, the village was in a similar situation with approx $200,000 in deficit in its sewer fund. The village had to make very hard decisions to get its books back in black and to get things on track for the long term. There was a lot of pain and suffering all around to get there.

“The village is at a point where things are stable. We prefer to stay with our long term plan to build a surplus for the purpose of matching funds for loans and grants with the eventual goal of being in a better position to negotiate financial terms on loans for replacement or repairs to the current sewer plant and water system. The five percent in the current sewer contract is intended to cover

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