KEVIN LEININGER: When sewer issues bubble to the surface, it’s not always easy to flush them away

Some Hoagland residents are raising a stink about plans to close the village's sewage plant. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
This looks like nothing more than flooded farm field, but these lagoons are actually Hoagland's sewage planjt -- at lest for now. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Jeff Morris
Kevin Leininger

Nobody really wants to see, smell or even notice them, but the sanitary and economic importance of sewers can’t be denied. Just ask the people of Huntertown, who spent years and more than $20 million to develop a new treatment plant that finally allowed the area to declare its independence from Fort Wayne City Utilities.

But sewage has been perhaps even more contentious in the unincorporated village of Hoagland in southeastern Allen County, where more than 100 residents attended an intense meeting earlier this month to vent years of pent-up frustration over decisions made by the county’s Regional Water and Sewer District. The issues in Huntertown and Hoagland are similar in many ways, but there are also some important distinctions — differences that probably will leave Hoagland residents disappointed despite some legitimate concerns.

Although the district’s $4 million plan to phase out Hoagland’s 33-year-old low-tech treatment plant in favor of connecting to Fort Wayne’s facility is the immediate concern, tension has existed between the district and some leading Hoagland business owners since at least 2016, when they sued the district in Allen Circuit Court over its plan to consolidate different rates for its 45 service areas into a less-cumbersome “blended” rate, which increased rates for some and lowering them for others. Hoagland’s 2016 rate was 15 higher than in 2014 and by next year is expected to be 62 percent higher than in 2013, according to Don Niemeyer, former district board member and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Niemeyer, who is also treasurer of Hoagland’s Chamber of Commerce and an organizer of this month’s meeting, said those costs are expected to rise even more in the future.

The Indiana Appeals Court ultimately ruled the Allen County Commissioners acted appropriately when they approved the new rates, which only made what followed even more galling to Niemeyer and others: the district’s decision to extend seven miles of sewer pipe so Hoagland can send its waste to Fort Wayne for treatment — a plan Niemeyer insists is not only unnecessary but wasteful.

Instead of spending $4 million, he said, Huntertown’s plant could comply with new requirements for ammonia reduction for as little as $250,000. A similar upgrade was recently made at Monroeville’s plant and the town received a five-year permit from the state, Niemeyer said.

“You don’t plan for five years, you plan for 20,” countered District Executive Director Jeff Morris, who said the state has sent signals Hoagland’s plant may not be allowed to operate indefinitely no matter what the district does. Although Niemeyer said the plant operates at less than 80 percent capacity during dry weather, Morris said long-term capacity remains a concern. Hoagland’s facility is little more than a series of lagoons in a field, and as the solids settle the runoff is chlorinated then dechlorinated before being discharged into the nearby Houk Ditch.

Unlike Fort Wayne, Niemeyer said, Hoagland’s plant has never discharged untreated sewage. But then, Morris said Hoagland’s untreated sewage wouldn’t end up in the river even if it is shipped to Fort Wayne because it would not flow into the city’s old combined storm and sanitary sewers, which can overflow during heavy rains.

There’s no denying the socialistic aspect of the blended rates, and it’s understandable that Hoagland — which Chamber Vice President John Niemeyer said has been a “cash cow” for the district — might object to subsidizing other areas’ rates. But as Morris noted, those very rates now also mean Hoagland residents won’t see much difference whether sewage is pumped to Fort Wayne or not. And District attorney Vince Heiney said millions of dollars in state grants are helping pay for this and. other projects, and the city’s plant has plenty of capacity and is working to nearly eliminate discharge of untreated sewage through hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades.

But just as Huntertown residents worried about paying for Fort Wayne’s upgrades through future rate hikes, so do people in Hoagland. Niemeyer said the district has shown interest in plants operated by Woodburn and Monroeville, and although “regionalization” through the Fort Wayne plant may offer technical expertise and economies of scale, it also limits self-determination.

Because it is unincorporated, Hoagland couldn’t do what Huntertown did even if it wanted to, and the district is not interested in creating a new plant to replace the one it built in 1985. So Hoagland residents have little choice but to work with the district as best they can even though, as Don Niemeyer pointed out, “There’s not a member from rural Allen County on the (District) board.”

The District was created in 1979 to serve rural areas and should want to be perceived as fairly representing those areas as well. That doesn’t appear to be the case, at least in one corner of Allen County.

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.

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.

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