| 3 min read | by Sean Dalton |
The Leoni Regional Utility Authority sent an invitation to Sylvan Township to join it and other constituent authority members in working to create a new regional wastewater authority.
That invitation, which was received in the form of a draft resolution last month, was tabled then and now after last night’s Sylvan Township Board of Trustees meeting, it’s been officially rejected upon a second look pending an opinion from the township’s attorney as to the potential liabilities involved in accepting that invitation.
At a glance, the resolution seems harmless. It states that participating municipalities would “…proceed with work to create a new Regional Sewer Authority that would oversee operation of the Leoni Wastewater Treatment Plant, with the understanding that many details are yet to be worked out.”
LRUA provides sewage disposal services to thirteen communities, including in Jackson County the townships of Leoni, Napoleon, Columbia, Norvell, Hanover, and Liberty; the Charter Townships of Blackman and Grass Lake; and the Villages of Grass Lake and Brooklyn. In Lenawee County, Cambridge Township is a member; while Sylvan and Lyndon Townships are the authority’s Washtenaw County participants.
Sylvan Township Supervisor Tom McKernan said that he didn’t see any language in the draft resolution provided by LRUA that could harm the township, but he said that he didn’t consider it prudent to move forward without guidance from legal counsel.
Those who don’t live in Sylvan Township who are reading this might not be aware that the township has ample reason to be wary of making any commitments anywhere in the arena of public utilities, as township residents are still paying 4.4 mills to retire debt from Sylvan’s own water and sewer misadventure that goes all the way back to 2000.
In short, the township gambled millions of dollars on building water and sewer facilities for residential developments that failed to materialize as the calendar advanced rapidly through the housing slowdown of the later part of that decade, ultimately leading to the financial collapse of 2008 that brought home-building to a standstill, along with the rest of the economy.
On top of the facilities operating at a fraction of their intended capacity for many years, the facilities aged despite their reduced usage carrying many of the same maintenance and upkeep costs as if the plant were running at full capacity. The dual costs of building them up front and later of maintaining them as they aged led to the current situation that Sylvan taxpayers are in.
The 4.4 mills must be paid by residents until 2032.
Sensing how township residents as a whole might feel if they were all piled into the township hall during the discussion, Sylvan’s Board of Trustees were highly skeptical and expressed concerns over the LRUA’s draft resolution’s wording.
Sylvan Township Department of Public Works Director Bob Scull said that his suggestion was to remain a customer and forego any further responsibility or obligation for the time being.
“My understanding is that this resolution is just for approval to explore the creation of forming a new authority and that’s basically all it is,” he explained. “It doesn’t say what form that will take, whether we’ll be a customer or an actual controlling interest in it … right now we’re just a customer and we want to stay nothing more than a customer.
“We don’t want to be a part of the authority.”
McKernan and others on the board picked at the language in the draft resolution, such as the language of the fourth whereas, in which it is stated that “at the September 26, 2019 meeting of the Leoni Regional Utility Authority the municipalities in attendance voted unanimously in favor of proceeding with work to develop a new Regional Sewer Authority to replace the current LRUA.”
For some on the Sylvan board, that language implied that all members of LRUA voted as individual municipal entities to move forward with the resolution and its stated intent, but the LRUA is constituted of representatives from those communities served by the LRUA system who are full members.
It was unclear to some which of those two realities that language was intended to indicate.
Township Clerk Kathleen Kennedy asked Scull to clarify the township’s relationship with LRUA, and Scull replied that there are five non-voting members and eight voting members of the authority, of which Sylvan is included in the former of those two groups.
He again strongly urged the board to not “get ahead of ourselves” and to remain merely customers.
Kennedy asked Scull if he thought there would be punitive action by LRUA if Sylvan declined ratification of the resolution, to which he said that his understanding is that the option to remain just a customer was still on the table for now.
Treasurer Rodney Branham motioned to decline the request to approve the resolution, with Trustee Cyndi Jabara supporting that motion, which ultimately passed unanimously.
Trustee Kurt Koseck expressed annoyance at the fact that the resolution had been sent without any accompanying representative of the LRUA to answer questions or address concerns, particularly in Sylvan Township where this is a touchy subject around which there is still a great deal of bad blood.
“It seems like it would be awfully nice if we had somebody from the LRUA come to us to explain the pros and cons of it … to me I don’t feel like I have enough information,” Koseck said.
There’s certainly cause for concern, as reports in other news publications indicate that LRUA has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits this year from participating members.
Last July Leoni Township itself even withdrew itself from the LRUA in response to acrimony from other LRUA members, many of which filed lawsuits for various reasons against the authority.