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11-18-05 County and city still thinking consolidation

By Tim Cox

  Mercer County and Celina city officials are moving toward consensus that it would be best to eventually consolidate into a central water system, but a number of issues remain to be addressed.

  The most urgent question is whether those collaborative efforts would be a short- or long-term venture.

  The issue was discussed at length during a joint meeting between county and city officials Thursday and has been a recurring theme since the series of discussions started a few weeks ago. Also undetermined is whether the local governments would proceed on their own or create a separate water district authority to guide the development of the water system to serve the county's population center.

  After looking at several financial scenarios a couple of weeks ago, Celina officials are convinced they must look harder at a combined system because estimates showed it would be the cheapest overall to residents, city community development consultant Kent Bryan said. However, there is a potential fly in the ointment with that proposal.

  The plan is based around the eventual construction of a new groundwater treatment plant in eastern Jefferson Township. But pumping water back into Celina could prove problematic because of the size of existing lines, officials said.  A 12-inch main runs along state Route 703, but the largest mains inside the city are 20 inches wide. Completing a loop in eastern Jefferson Township with another 12-inch line might work, but officials are unsure. Extensive computer modeling would have to be done to see if the scenario would work.

  An additional water main could add significantly to the overall cost of the project, officials said.

  Officials also continue to debate whether they should combine their efforts now or solve their individual problems first and combine the systems later. Valid arguments have been presented for both scenarios.

  Some officials believe it would be best for Celina to address its EPA compliance issues before looking toward the future. The county-owned system in eastern Jefferson Township -- which is supplied and maintained under contract with Celina -- needs a new water tower and replacement of most of its existing water lines.

  Commissioner Jim Zehringer said he thinks it might be best for each entity to address those issues before collaborating on a joint venture. Others agreed, noting Celina's existing plant has plenty of additional capacity to produce water and could do so well into the future. After the plant reaches its capacity, then the city and county could look at a combined effort, they said.

  That plan has potential snags, including the skepticism of some rural residents about whether the city can produce healthy water that meets environmental standards, Commissioner Jerry Laffin said.

  But it might be cheaper for a single entity to assume necessary debt toward a singular fix, others said. City officials have some hesitation to move toward a groundwater plant now because the available wellfield east of the city is relatively small. The area open for water drilling is bounded on the south by Grand Lake and on the north by a heavily regulated continental divide that officials could not currently draw water from without years of licensing efforts and additional construction expenses to pipe treated wastewater back north of the divide.

  Beyond that, there still are numerous issues officials must address. Those include how staffing, maintenance and billing would be handled in a joint water system. Questions also loom about the availability of grant funding and how it might be affected by working individually or together.

  Those officials closest to the situation will continue working behind the scenes studying those issues as the joint discussions are put on hold through the upcoming holidays. City and county officials tentatively plan to resume the series of meetings in mid-January.


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