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Fort Wayne, Aqua closer to deal on southwest water

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 7:06 am

Fort Wayne and Aqua Indiana officials signaled Tuesday that the two sides could reach a deal in the next two weeks on the city's takeover of the private utility's southwest-side water system.

The city and Aqua each were scheduled to give a 45-minute presentation to City Council as the panel considers whether to move forward with the takeover. But each side opted not to argue its case before council, saying negotiations have taken a productive turn in recent days and weeks.

"We've had some positive discussions in the last several days," said Tom Bruns, president of Aqua Indiana. "We're not there yet, but we've made a huge amount of headway in the last few weeks."

The two sides have another two weeks to reach a deal before Feb. 5, when council is next scheduled to consider a condemnation and eventual forced buyout of Aqua's southwest system.

Fort Wayne City Utilities Director Kumar Menon also said the two sides have moved closer to a deal over the past week. City and Aqua representatives have met every day since Friday, including the weekend and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he said.

"Confidence goes up each time we continue to meet," he said. "Talks have been very substantive, and we're moving closer."

If no deal happens before Feb. 5 and council votes to move forward with the condemnation process, the city will get an appraisal on the value of Aqua's southwest-side assets.

After an appraisal, the city would make an offer, which Aqua could either accept or reject. If Aqua were to accept the offer, council could approve a purchase. If not, council could vote to take the matter to the courts, which would set a price for the Aqua system.

A settlement at any point between the two sides would prevent a legal battle that could drag on for years.

Mayor Tom Henry announced in November that the city was moving toward a takeover of Aqua's southwest system, citing the utility's perceived poor water quality, high prices and struggles to provide adequate water supply and pressure.

At Tuesday's council meeting, about 20 Fort Wayne residents testified on the matter, with the majority urging council to move forward with the takeover.

"I hope that you take from my presentation only one word: 'Now,'" said Aboite Township resident Adrienne Baach. "Water quality is an oxymoron in southwest Allen County."

One woman told council after she moved to Aqua's service area, her pet fish died because she couldn't balance the chemical levels in the water. A man said Aqua's water made it impossible to get his white laundry clean. Another woman said the water ruined her coffee maker and left a permanent scum on the dishes.

But two other residents expressed skepticism that the city could pay for the takeover, which would likely cost well over $17 million, without raising rates on current City Utilities customers.

Councilman Glynn Hines, D-6th, agreed, calling on city officials to present a detailed fiscal plan on the takeover.