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Commission considers sewer sale

CHESAPEAKE – Lawrence County commissioners and Union-Rome Sewer District Advisory Board members may have found an answer to the continuing problems with the system.

Thursday, August 19, 1999

CHESAPEAKE – Lawrence County commissioners and Union-Rome Sewer District Advisory Board members may have found an answer to the continuing problems with the system.

But, they will not make any definite decisions until all the facts are known.

Representatives of Ohio-American Water Company introduced themselves Wednesday night and answered questions for county commissioners and advisory board members about the company’s interest in purchasing the problem-plagued sewer system.

The investor-owned utility company recently announced an interest in the 4,500-customer system because it is looking for growth, vice president and manager T. Wilkes Coleman said.

"We didn’t come down to make an offer," he said. "We’re interested in growing the company in an area where it’s feasible."

Coleman told advisory board members that Ohio-American will spend several months pouring over financial data, sewer system statistics, EPA mandates and future repair estimates.

"They’re so many options available and we’ve got to find the best way for us and the users," he said. "And if there’s nothing we can do to improve the situation of the customers then nothing will happen."

Over the years, the Union-Rome sewer has battled environmental problems, increasing rates, delinquent accounts, sewer plant capacity problems and groundwater infiltration.

"We’d be foolish not to look at it," advisory board member Willard Spears said.

Fixing problems with public utilities often means more debt for the system, and that can cause problems and higher bills for customers, Spears said.

Perhaps a private company that owns more than one utility can use cost-sharing and other methods to more efficiently run the Union-Rome system and soften any future impact on its customers, he said.

"But between the seven of us here at this table, we know almost everyone around here and we’re going to protect them," Spears said.

The board’s members quizzed Coleman on Ohio-America’s rate structures, the likelihood of reducing local sewer rates, the protection of Union-Rome employees and the possibility of promising no rate hikes for a number of years.

No accurate answers can be given until Ohio-American checks all the data, but the company could "lease" the county employees in order to protect their public employee status, Coleman said.

Ohio-American has purchased systems before where future rate hikes only could be approved under certain circumstances, such as a need to upgrade, if both parties agree, he said.

But such questions that come with taking the system out of the county’s hands might make customers uneasy, commissioner George Patterson said.

"I will listen but I’m leery," he said. "I believe this committee will take a good hard look and will scrutinize it pretty hard on behalf of all the users."

Commission president Bruce Trent agreed that the county has an obligation to listen to any company like Ohio-American.

"We’re simply trying to see what’s best for the people of the system and (Ohio-American’s) assessment might show we are doing the best," Trent said.

"Those 4,500 customers deserve for us to listen to somebody who perhaps wants to make an offer."

The county did not initiate the idea of selling the sewer system, but has discussed contracting out services in the past, Trent said.

No decisions will be made until the advisory board makes a recommendation to the commissioners, he said.

The next advisory board meeting will be Sept. 20, with the location to be announced.