Vote advances effort to clear McKinney-Paxson watershed pollution

By DAVE SCHULTZ

On a pair of 5-0 votes, the Bluffton Common Council Tuesday night approved the sale of bonds for improvements to the city’s sanitary sewage collection system.

The votes, done with the guidance of a municipal financial counselor and the engineer who directs the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, moved the process forward that will eventually allow the city to transport and treat wastewater from the residents of the McKinney-Paxson watershed to the east of the city limits.

The bonds, from the State Revolving Loan Fund, will refinance the bonds that were issued in 2014 for wastewater plant improvements. John Julien of Umbaugh and Associates, who was present to discuss the financing of the project, estimated that the city has an outstanding balance of about $5.5 million from that bond issue and will need to pick up another $2.6 million in debt for the improvements to the collection system and some additional plant improvements.

The new bonds, however, will come at no interest to the city — as opposed to the current bond issue, which Julien estimated had an interest rate of between 3.25 and 3.33 percent.

Julien gave the council members — Mike Morrissey, John Whicker, Carl Perry, Jim Phillabaum, and Melanie Durr — a tour of the highlights of the 43-page bond ordinance. The document starts with 14 lines that all begin with the word “whereas.” The ordinance is a contract to borrow the money, he said, and it describes the project, tells how the city is going to repay the money “and all the loan provisions you can think of.”

“It covers a lot of ground,” Julien said, “which is why it is 43 pages long.”

The council members passed the ordinance on first reading and then suspended the rules and passed it on second and final reading. Unanimous votes were required each time.

The sewer lines and sewer plant improvements are being done, with encouragement from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Finance Authority (the parent organization for the SRLF), to alleviate the pollution problems in the McKinney-Paxson watershed. The agreement that makes it possible for the city to handle the effluent from that watershed also ends IDEM’s agreed order with Wells County that was signed in 1999. IDEM was pushing the county — and particularly, the Wells County Regional Sewer District — to resolve that problem.

The bond ordinance passed Tuesday makes possible one part of the delivery of sanitary sewer service to the McKinney-Paxson watershed. The installation of sewer lines in the watershed and all that will be required to serve the households is a separate project; Julien and Ben Adams of Commonwealth Engineers said they would be back next month to discuss the financing of that work.

Council members — particularly Phillbaum and Durr, who serve on the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety with Mayor Ted Ellis — had questions for Adams about any possible expansion of the project. There are parcels near the McKinney-Paxson watershed going up for sale and they could be subdivided into as many as 40 houses. Could those developments hook onto city sewer service provided to McKinney-Paxson?

Adams didn’t say no, necessarily, but he did say the focus of the project is on fixing the pollution problem in the watershed — not providing for any future development. He said he wanted a final count for the project by Feb. 26, the day of the bid letting for the watershed’s collection system.

“The main concern is that McKinney-Paxson is done correctly?” Durr asked. Adams said that was the case, and there was never an intention of adding additional farm ground to the project — ground that could be developed for housing.

“Would the SRLF have something to say about that?” Durr asked.

“If we were to switch gears right now and say not 78 (homes) but 178, that would be a big deal for them,” Adams replied.

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