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COLUMN

City's argument for Aqua Indiana takeover is all wet

Only safety – not taste or price – can justify intrusion into private sector

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - 12:01 am

Just in time for Christmas, Mayor Tom Henry slid down the chimney last week and announced plans to take over the much-maligned water utility that serves 12,000 customers in southwest Allen County.

But at the risk of alienating my fellow Aboite Township residents and even my wife, surely another government intrusion into the supposedly free enterprise system deserves at least as much attention as the relatively petty consumer complaints with which Henry sought to justify it.

Frankly, I wish it were not necessary to defend Aqua Indiana. In the 1990s, the service provided by its privately owned forerunner, the Utility Center, was so inadequate that the county halted development in its service area. Complaints about water quality and price persist to this day, and lawns were burnt to a crisp during last summer's drought when low wells and water pressure resulted in sprinkling ban. It's quite possible City Utilities could provide more and better water at lower rates – at least for now.

But government does not exist to give people whatever they want. For the city to take over a private company, the public interest at stake should be just a little more compelling than aesthetics or even finances.

As Henry noted last week, the company's response to the drought was so inadequate that it threatened public safety. It's not easy fighting fires without an adequate water supply, and if Aqua Indiana had done nothing to correct the situation a city takeover would be more than justified.

But that's just the point. The company responded to what it calls “unprecedented” conditions by drilling a new 500,000-gallon-per-day well that President Tom Bruns said should allow it to weather similar conditions should they reoccur. And if necessary, the company could do what it did last summer: tap into the city's water supply.

So if the takeover of a company that employs 35 people and (unlike City Utilities) actually pays taxes isn't necessary to ensure public safety, Bruns legitimately asks: Why would the city want to spend $2 million on attorneys and another $60 million or so for the system itself when after eight years the two sides are still squabbling over the city's $18 million takeover of the company's system on the north side of town?

The mayor's press conference was instructive in that regard. One resident complained of “atrocious” water quality. Henry himself promised lower rates.

Bruns, not surprisingly, questions both claims. In a blind test last winter, he said, customers preferred the taste of Aqua Indiana water to City Utilities' or bottled water. The company has also improved its water's softness, although Bruns said complaints of residue may be linked to the use of well water instead of the river supply used by the city.

As for Aqua Indiana's higher rates, it's easy to attribute that to corporate greed. After all, parent company Aqua America reported net income of $143 million last year. But as Bruns noted, the company's rates are approved by state regulators and must pay for millions of dollars in recent upgrades. More to the point, the city also plans to increase its rates – an increase Bruns said could approach 30 percent over the next three years. And don't forget taxes helped build the city's system.

As Bruns noted, the loss of many major industrial water users in recent decades has created an overcapacity City Utilities officials are eager to address. But it's likely the city's interest in Aqua Indiana does not stop with its water utility. Bruns expects the city to seek the company's sewer service as well, which could expose residents to the hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements the city must make under a federal mandate.

Although Bruns said the company and city had not talked since August, he had thought the two sides were still open to working together to improve service and attract jobs to southwest Allen County and admitted to being “baffled” by the mayor's announcement – news Henry did not share with him in advance.

City Councilman Mitch Harper, who represents Aboite Township, is the only announced Republican candidate for mayor. Hopefully, that had nothing to do with Henry's decision. But unless a stronger public-safety argument can be made, something Mitt Romney said earlier this month is apt:

Trying to explain his loss, the Republican presidential candidate blamed President Obama's willingness to give “big gifts” to various special-interest groups. This would indeed be a “gift” to people who chose to buy homes in areas served by a company providing service they now find unappealing.

People untroubled by the larger ramifications probably believe in Santa Claus.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.