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11-02-05 Teaming up may save on water costs

By Tim Cox

  A regional water system serving the city of Celina and surrounding areas could cost less overall than the city and county pursuing separate solutions to the water issues facing them.

  Those were the results of preliminary projections as Celina and Mercer County officials investigate the possibility of working together on the water issue. Officials also discussed procedures necessary to set up an independent water authority to run such a system.

  Existing water treatment and operation costs -- not necessarily water rates -- would rise by 18 percent or so if the city and county collaborated on a central water system. The city's expenses would rise by an estimated 50 percent by pursuing its own fix of water problems and update of treatment equipment.

  Overall costs would actually decrease for both proposals if a large industrial user was added to the system. County officials have been pursuing an ethanol plant and such a facility would use enough water to substantially lower costs. Early estimates say overall cost would drop over current expenses by 24 percent with a consolidated water system.

  "If we could sell more water, we'd all be a lot better off," said Kent Bryan, the city's community development consultant.  Because about 90 percent of the costs to treat water are fixed -- equipment, personnel, etc. -- additional water sales amount mostly to profit, Bryan said. The current Celina water plant treats an average of about 1.3 million gallons daily but has the capacity to produce about double that amount.

  One reason a central system would be cheaper is because the county can qualify for Rural Development grant money. The city's population is too large to qualify for the program.

  Tom Fishbaugh, a consultant with the Rural Community Assistance Program, talked with local officials about how water districts are set up. Under Ohio Revised Code, the county can operate a regional system or all local governments can set up a governing water authority.

  To get a regional district set up, the entities involved would have to petition the Mercer County Common Pleas Court for approval. The judge would weigh the merits of the program and the potential benefit to citizens before deciding whether the proposal could move forward.

  Local officials would retain control over how the governing board of the water authority would be set up. Appointees from each participating government would be one likely scenario.

  After it is set up, the water district would make all the decisions and control the water infrastructure. Such a panel would have the authority to set water rates and even assess property taxes for capital improvements.

  Celina Mayor Sharon LaRue asked about the potential downside to consolidating the water system.  

  The city would give up one of its utilities, along with the revenue that goes with it, Fishbaugh said. The city also would not be able to use its available water as an annexation incentive because the surrounding area already would be served with the same water.

  County Commissioner Jerry Laffin noted that water districts have some control over economic development issues because of their control of the water.

  Fishbaugh said water authorities tend to move faster on economic development issues than other government bodies.

  Officials agreed to meet again in two weeks when they plan to delve further into the operation and setup of a regional water board.

  The talks are expected to continue as Celina pilot tests a short-term fix to its water quality problems. City officials must decide whether to pursue a long-term, multi-million dollar upgrade of its water plant or whether to partner with the county.

  County officials need a new water tower and replacement of water pipes in the East Jefferson water district and also are interested in increasing capacity to accommodate new industry.

  -- Staff writer William Kincaid contributed to this story.


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