What’s the Path Forward for Sylvan Township’s Water and Sewer?

By Lonnie Huhman, lhuhman@thesuntimesnews.com

Sylvan Township wants to get its water and sewer issues in line, including its rate structure, and tap and connection fees.

However, before that can happen, the township needs to make what it believes is the correct step forward to begin going about this.

One agenda item for the Feb. 5 township board meeting called for the review of the Wightman proposed contract for water and sewer tap and connections fees. 

Alan Smaka, a representative from the firm, Wightman & Associates, went before the board to talk about the proposal, which was described by some township officials as a possible way forward in getting the township’s water and sewer rates, and everything else associated with the system, “in line.”

Smaka said the proposal is basically looking to have Wightman do an audit of the water and sewer system in an effort to figure out the exact issues facing it. He said the system is an intertwining thing, so it needs to be looked over as a whole.

Township board trustee Kurt Koseck said he understands Wightman can do its proposal, but what he thought the township was asking for was a more specific proposal to help the township determine if it has the capacity to hook up to the main the new residences planned for in Sylvan Crossing phases two and three.

Rather than award a big agreement to one firm, Koseck said the township should dole out the needed work in parts rather than in one, big whole. He said they should probably take it on in small chunks. He said one firm might be better at one thing than another firm, and vice versa, so doing it in chunks would allow the township to assess each step.

He said it’s just one small piece among many pieces needing to be addressed, but that’s the way he thinks the township should begin moving forward.

Wightman addressed the concerns the township might have, but Smaka said in the end the township will probably have to do many of the things Wightman is proposing to do and it could cost more if they are done in chunks.

Wightman’s proposal, which was extensive, had an estimated total cost of $50,000.

The proposal’s project understanding stated, “It is our understanding the Sylvan Township water system was constructed and financed utilizing significant growth and expansion assumptions. When such growth did not occur, coupled with failed residential developments, it resulted in an oversized, under-utilized, and financial deficient enterprise fund threatening the financial solvency of the Township as a whole. The backlash from this scenario included, but was not limited to, a deterioration of public trust, lawsuits, very high user rates for a small customer base, and the absence of a solid framework from which such a municipal system is typically managed.”

To reverse this trend, Wightman offered up a list of primary goals, including increasing the customer base at the least marginal cost by enticing and leveraging the current growth/development pressures and by maximizing private investments. A strategically created rate, connection and tap fee structure, along with identifying the next bets potential extensions for financial return, are among the scope to accomplish this.”

Other goals would have the township setting up an operation/maintenance, replacements costs scheduled, projected out to 20 years and see the development of the optimal rate structure, inclusive of tap and connection fees.

Smaka said they could adjust the proposal to be for defined scope of work, but he was unsure of going forward in such a way that doesn’t allow them to consider the whole system and its interconnecting parts.

Wightman’s proposal begins by stating, “Over the past two years, we have visited and periodically communicated with you and others from the Township regarding some deeply rooted issues surrounding the water and wastewater systems serving portions of Sylvan Township, and how some of these issues have permeated across other aspects of Township government and into the public’s trust in its elected officials.”

It goes onto say, “Admittedly, solutions are not singular nor plainly evident without a deep dive into various areas related to these systems, including but not limited to the operational, engineering/technical, financial, rate making/budgetary, capital investment, legal, regulatory, enforcement and administrative realms. Otherwise, if easily accomplished, the past and remaining challenges would already be overcome. We also hope you can appreciate how significantly more time is necessary for us to truly understand the core and foundational issues before the right path forward can be developed…and in the “right path forward”, order is very important.”

The proposal also stated Wightman understands when looking at the past for Sylvan, its understandable the township may have a lack of trust and/or fear in working with a consultant. They said it’s justifiable given the costly and nearly catastrophic failures of past professionals in whom the township placed faith and who subsequently led it down an ill-advised path.

The discussion in general for the township board and attendees at the meeting centered around the questions of what are the priorities, what steps should be taken first and are there things in the proposal they already have information for or should have another firm supply.

The township late last year hired Bob Scull as its new public works manager. He is still getting to know the system and its issues, but township officials say he will play a part in taking the issues on.

In looking forward, township supervisor Tom McKernan said there is a lot that needs to be discussed about the water and sewer situation going forward, so he suggested scheduling a township work session in the near future just on this topic.    

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