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Perry County may cut sewer costs with Licking County hook-up

THORNVILLE – Perry County Commissioners have reached a preliminary agreement with Licking County to provide sewer service to county residents currently served by the Village of Thornville.

Commissioners believe the existing service agreement with Thornville is too expensive and have been working for months to find a cheaper alternative. Thornville officials, however, believe the existing contract is fair and would like the county to agree to its terms.

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 because of compounding five percent annual increases.

In February 2014, Thornville Village Council members voted 3 to 2 to continue the current 15- year contract after Perry County officials asked council members to drop a compounding five percent increase in annual payments.

On March 30, Perry County Commissioners sent a letter to Thornville officials asking them to meet and discuss the possibility of altering the five percent compounded increase clause before moving ahead with connecting to Licking County for sewer service.

According to a commissioners’ letter to Thornville Administrator Beth Patrick, “We are writing to inform the village that the county has come to preliminary terms with Licking County for the treatment of sanitary waste. We now intend to begin finalizing formal contract documents for these services. Since this will obviously have a financial impact on the Village of Thornville, we wanted to let you know so you can plan accordingly for the loss in revenue.

“As you know from our previous requests, the county has been trying to work with the village for several years to find mutually agreeable terms for the village, and residents paying for such services. It is unfortunate we could not come to terms with the village on a revised agreement, the Perry County Commissioners had no choice but to look at other options for sewage treatment. If council is willing to reconsider amending the current contract, please let us know before May 28, 2015. We can schedule a time for you to attend one of our weekly board meetings. Please be advised that once we begin formal contract negotiations with Licking County, we will not entertain any counteroffers from the village. It would be unfair to Licking County to enter into contract negotiations without a firm commitment to follow through.”

Thornville Mayor Gavin Renner said in an email, “Once again, the Perry County Commissioners have asked The Village of Thornville to reduce the amount we charge for sewer services for the sake of providing cheaper sewer service to your area. We in Village of Thornville are committed to providing water and sewer service to the local area at a fair price. We think that the amount charged is fair and covers our costs for our water and sewer debt, which primarily goes toward the existing sewer plant and employees to run it. We are not charging the county an excessive amount for the service provided.

“For years, the county has taken on increasing amounts of debt on projects related to water and sewer. This is money that you currently pay for in your water and sewer bill. Perry County Commissioners however see fit to pipe water from Athens County to the Northern end of the county and now they want to make a deal with Licking County for services. If it results in cheaper water and sewer services, we are fine with that; however the county has consistently taken on large amounts of debt to do these projects. We hope they don’t plan to do so for this Licking County project.”

Thornville Administrator Beth Patrick said it’s too early to determine how Perry County connecting to Licking County for sewer service would affect Thornville financially. She said she was unsure of Perry County’s intent, based on the letter. “We’re looking at our numbers now,” Patrick said. “As far as we’re concerned, we have a valid contract.”

Patrick said she didn’t think Perry County had all the facts and numbers it needs associated with connecting to Licking County. She said the minutes of a Perry County Commissioners meeting March 27 state that Mitch Altier, IBI Group (formally ME Companies) engineering consultant said the final EDU cost per month would be $17 for 5,250 gallons of usage. According to the minutes, Altier said figures were discussed on preliminary cost estimates and capacity charges for permits and fees ($60,000) and the savings Perry County would acquire if it changed from Thornville to Licking County. “Strictly by economics, it looks like it’s a good idea to go with Licking County,” Altier said in the minutes. “Final agreement on the cost could be negotiated with Licking County so we have concrete prices.

Patrick said she hopes Perry County has all the information it needs to connect with Licking County before it offers Thornville an ultimatum May 28. She said she would be disappointed if Perry County took its business outside of Perry County. Patrick said if Perry County contracts with Licking County the commissioners would be sending even more business out of Perry as Perry County already draws water from Athens County. “Whom do they represent?” she said. “Are they helping out other counties?” Patrick said she’s disappointed the commissioners are distributing water and sewer business elsewhere instead of keeping it within Perry County. “We’re not taking care of our own.”

Patrick said, “Customers deserve more than, ‘It looks like a good idea.’ That’s not how you do business.” She said the Thornville administration is discussing the situation with village Solicitor Brian Zets. “We’ll see where we go from there,” Patrick said.

Perry County Commissioner Jim O’Brien said the letter to Thornville was not meant as an ultimatum, but rather the commissioners wanted to meet with Thornville before Perry County reaches the “point of no return” with Licking County and is no longer able to negotiate with Thornville.

O’Brien said commissioners are working with legal counsel to determine if the county actually is legally bound to the Thornville contract until 2022. “We’ve got some lawyers looking into that,” he said. O’Brien was clear the only contention with the Thornville contract is the five percent compounded annual increase in cost. “People around the lake are getting hit” with higher sewer bills, he said. “We’re losing money.” O’Brien said the letter to Thornville was an invitation to discuss the situation before committing to Licking County. He said he’d like to keep business within Perry County, but Thornville’s contract is just too expensive. “We have to do what we have to do,” he said.

O’Brien said if the county remains with the Thornville contract it would be forced to raise rates for the customers, or pay for sewer service out of the general fund, which spreads the bill across all county residents. “We’re not going to put the burden on the rest of the county,” he said.

O’Brien said commissioners, engineers, and Licking County representatives have all “run the numbers” and agreed a connection with Licking County would become profitable in a few years, despite the upfront costs associated with extending sewer lines into Licking County. “We’re not out to hurt Thornville,” he said, but Perry County residents can’t afford another rate hike.

Licking County Water and Wastewater Director Kevin Eby said Buckeye Lake Sewer Department customers pay $46 per EDU, which includes administration, billing, maintenance, and treatment. “We have proposed a bulk rate of $17 per EDU,” he said. “This covers treatment cost only.”

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