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Thornville doesn’t met county’s deadline

THORNVILLE – Thornville Village Council members want more information from Perry County Commissioners before making a decision on a request from commissioners to eliminate or reduce a compounding 5 percent annual increase in the village’s sewer service control with the Northern Perry County Water and Sewer District, Thornville Administrator Beth Patrick said.

“There’s no decision,” she said after council’s Tuesday night meeting.

Perry County Commissioner Jim O’Brien said Wednesday that the county and Thornville failed to reach an agreement by the May 28 deadline set by commissioners in a letter to village officials. Since the deadline wasn’t met, commissioners will now move ahead, evaluating other sewer service options for the district. While O’Brien said the door isn’t completely closed to Thornville, commissioners are moving ahead with other options. He said the county has more than one option, but he wasn’t specific at this point.

“We’re proceeding ahead by the terms of the letter,” O’Brien said, adding he’s sorry the commissioners and Thornville haven’t reached an agreement. “We’ll see where it goes from there.”

In 2007, former county commissioners Thad Cooperrider, Fred Shriner, and Lonnie Wood approved a contract to pay $50,000 that year for Thornville to treat the district’s wastewater. 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 turned down a request by commissioners to drop the compounding five percent per year escalator by a 3-2 vote. 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 escalator clause before commissioners move ahead with connecting to Licking County for sewer service. Commissioners previously said they would prefer to stay with Thornville for wastewater treatment but are negotiating with Licking County for for less expensive service.

“They’ve given us very preliminary numbers,” said Thornville Village Council member Mary Renner, adding that council members want to be sure the Northern Perry County residents are receiving the best service possible. She said Northern Perry County customers are charged little more than Thornville residents. “It’s not a wise move to lower rates to where those outside of the village are paying less for service than those who live within the village,” Renner said.

Patrick said the village is more than willing to discuss the contract with the commissioners at any time, as the village has done previously. “We just need an open and honest discussion” about where the county is at with the situation,” she said.

“We have followed this contract to the ‘T,’” Patrick said, adding that it’s “disheartening” to think the commissioners may break the contract after eight years because they found a better deal. “They (the former Perry County Commissioners) wrote the contract,” she said. “They put the five percent in.” Patrick said the com missioners added the five percent increase to cover wear and tear on the sewer plant. “They said they couldn’t build and operate a (sewer) plant for what they are paying Thornville, which is correct,” she said.

Thornville Mayor Gavin Renner provided The Beacon a statement on the situation from Thornville’s perspective.

Renner wrote, “You may have heard the rumor… Perry County Commissioners are going to have to raise sewer rates on county customers in Thornville, Thornport and Heron Bay, and it’s all because of an ‘unfair’ contract with the Village of Thornville.

“The fact is the Thornville sewer contract isn’t the source of the county’s financial problems. The county wrote the entire contract in 2007, they agreed to it and should have checked to make sure its terms fit within their budget. Instead, the commissioners are pitting us against our neighbors in the township because of the county’s financial problems. We didn’t pull a fast one. Their engineer wrote the contract. The five percent increase per year was added by the commissioners before they signed it.

“Let’s look at the facts. The county charges its customers $60 per 2000 gallons every month for sewer. Only $13.26 of that goes to the Village of Thornville; the county keeps $46.74 for itself. Next year we’ll ask for a whopping 43 cents more. Over the next seven years by the time this contract ends, we’ll be charging $3.56 more per customer per month. At that time the amount we collect will be $16.82. The county will keep $43.18 for its expenses. Commissioner Jim O’Brien claims, ‘People around the lake are getting hit,’ implying that we’re somehow price gouging. We’ve been told the prices are ‘unsustainable’ and that it’s somehow cheaper to spend more money and pay higher rates with Licking County.

“Several years ago, Commissioner Ed Keister withheld payment as an attempt to strongarm the village into negotiation. Despite the fact that this wasn’t part of the contract we took a look at their concerns. There were several options. They were only interested in setting the flat fee back to its 2008 value of $52,500. Instead of $13.26 per month, the village would only get $10.72 per month and the county would keep $49.28 per month. In recent discussions the commissioners have indicated prices would have to go up regardless of the contract rate. When asked how much, Commissioner David Frericks told us ‘a lot.’ Unfortunately, we don’t know how much “a lot” is. Details were not forthcoming. You would think they would have that number available if there is such a concern.

“Where does the additional money go that the county collects? Who knows? Council members have asked but couldn’t get a straight answer. The commissioners didn’t want to talk about it. They only want to talk about the five percent. We assume the people’s money goes to loans taken on by the county.

“We attempted to work with the county to understand why the five percent is such a problem for them. We want to know what other cuts are they looking at across the board. We asked for more time to understand where they are coming from and details of their newest plan. Instead, we’ve been told that they voted in their last meeting to take their ball and go to Licking County. We’ve also been told that they intend to renege on their contract with the village. We’d like to know why the commissioners are more interested in being ‘fair’ to Licking County, a government entity, while treating Thornville residents like we’re not part of Perry County at all? We’re voters and taxpayers, too. They’ve provided more information, consideration and notice to Licking County than they are providing to us. We’re left out of the loop and asked to make hasty decisions with little information.

“The commissioners have always had the option, under the contract to go into mediation or arbitration to resolve contract disputes. If they feel so strongly that the five percent is such a big problem, they could have followed the contract and entered mediation to get this resolved. But they didn’t do that. Instead, rather than following the contract that they wrote, they think they can ignore it and go straight to contract negotiations with Licking County. But, why should anyone honor agreements with Perry County taxpayers? The commissioners already made a commitment to Burr Oak Water, located in Athens County for water for a large portion of the county, which landlocked Somerset from being able to expand its water system. We discovered unnecessary and expensive water lines to the high school from Burr Oak. Now we’re finding out that there are going to be lines to the Backwoods Festival location from Burr Oak. Even though there are impacts to our system, Thornville Water was not notified. We had to discover it through reading meeting minutes.

“The fact that the commissioners feel it’s appropriate to seek agreements with other counties without first consulting its villages is short sighted, unfair, and puts Perry County in a bad spot. Once outside interests have control of our water and sewer, prices will be set by someone you can’t vote for. Someone else will dictate the price and they’ll determine what residents can and can’t do with their water. If the county is so worried about hurting Thornville, why don’t they instead look at their other agreements? Why not break their agreement with Burr Oak Water and renegotiate the $4.20 bulk water rate currently in force? Thornville only charges a bulk rate of $2.75. Why does Burr Oak get so much for their water? Why not run a water line from Thornville to Southern Perry County? Why not from Somerset? Both options are cheaper.

“The same thing is happening with this Licking County deal. Perry County is prepared to pay a fee of $17 per EDU. Currently, Thornville charges the county $11.81 per EDU. Last time I checked, 11 was less than 17. We’re not sure what the bulk rate will be for Licking since we only have preliminary numbers. We do know that the commissioners intend to ‘save money’ by pursing a long-term, high-interest loan commitment with OWDA. We know all about these types of loans. Thornville has one. I can personally assure everyone around the lake that they aren’t free and you can’t renege on an agreement with the OWDA. The State of Ohio will step in and take things over. The state won’t care how high the rates go up. They’ll charge what is necessary to pay costs. You don’t like the (dam replacement) situation between the state and (Buckeye Lake)? Well, guess what – be prepared.

“Unlike the county, the village intends to follow the terms of the contract. The contract as the county wrote it is valid until 2022. According to the contract, the county owes the village lump sum payments over a seven-year period. Do they plan to walk away leaving us in the lurch? We caution the commissioners to take a look at the long-term impacts of their current course of action. Their discussion of an agreement with Licking County and OWDA may result in a permanent situation that Northern Perry County Water and Sewer customers will have to live with for a long, long time. We are concerned about strong language used by the county about the validity of the contract, especially since they asked us to enter this agreement in the first place. We’d also like to remind the commissioners that the contract with the village is the same as a contract with the residents of the county. When you take that money away from the village, you are taking it away from residents. We expect the commissioners to honor their promises to the taxpayers of Thornville, and not send money to Licking County or Athens County.”

Renner concluded, “We will be taking a look at our options and determine our next steps.”

Tuesday, Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb said he was only aware of “informal discussion” with Perry County officials about becoming a sewer customer and he didn’t believe Perry County has made a formal request for sewer service, nor has Licking County actively sought Perry County’s business.

However, “No one’s discouraged it,” he said. “Why would we not (provide sewer service)? It’s really their call. We could certainly handle it.” Bubb said Licking County has plenty of capacity if Perry County decides to contract with Licking County for Northern Perry County sewer service.

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