New group steps in on sewer project

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission has agreed to take a direct role in attempts to bring a sewer system to the Bean Blossom area.

The Brown County Regional Sewer District Board had been on the verge of canceling the project, according to a letter from Evan Werling, sewer district board president, to Jim Zimmerly, president of the Brown County Board of Health.

In the letter, dated Dec. 20, Werling alleged a number of problems facing the sewer project, including “serious ethical and fiduciary issues arising out of actions taken by the prior sewer board.”

Werling was appointed to the board in January 2016 and made president at the board’s first 2016 meeting. All other current members precede Werling’s time.

Werling’s letter also alleged that the health department needs to provide proof that the sewer project is needed due to environmental threats.

He also claimed that the local health department interfered with efforts to have the Indiana Department of Health develop proof of need for the project.

Norman Oestrike, Brown County health officer, said he had not signed off on the state health department’s plan to prove the need because it would have involved volunteers entering private properties to look for evidence of failing septic systems.

While he was not included in discussions with the state department of health, Oestrike would have been the one legally responsible for the actions of any volunteers, and with his medical license on the line for something he had been given no involvement in, Oestrike said he was unwilling to sign off on volunteer-led inspections.

In his letter, Werling stated that it was up to the Brown County Health Department to justify the need for the sewer project, “Otherwise, our BC Regional Sewer Board will have no alternative other than to cancel the current sewer project covering the Bean Blossom, Woodland Lake and (etc.) area.”

Under the state code governing sewer districts, once established, a regional sewer district is not required to show septics are failing in order to install a sewer system.

History

The original effort to have a sewer in Bean Blossom was started by residents of that community almost 20 years ago.

Resident Diana Biddle remembers walking the roads with her mother, Nina Jo McDonald, and catching people as they passed through the family’s grocery store to get them to sign up and show their support for a sewer.

When it came time to track down property owners, they pulled out plat books and went through the property cards at the county assessor’s office.

“We didn’t have any other options,” Biddle said. “If it’s important to you, you do what you gotta do.”

Though Woodland Lake was not originally part of the project, it was added after someone from the Rural Community Assistance Partnership told the sewer board — then called the Bean Blossom Regional Sewer District Board — that they would have trouble getting funding without more people to serve, said former board member John Kennard.

In late 2016, the BCRSD sent out letters to all landowners they anticipated would be affected by the new sewer — about 230 owners, some of multiple properties.

They invited owners to a public meeting where several people — including Oestrike and Perry — gave presentations on the benefits of a sewer system.

Perry gave a cost comparison between maintaining a septic system and sewer fees. She said if a septic system is properly maintained, the cost over time can be comparable to paying monthly sewer fees.

However, in a Jan. 9 interview, Werling said that without proof of environmental threats, and in light of rumors that most residents of Woodland Lake do not want the sewer, he will not allow the board — comprised of five members of equal voting power — to implement the sewer.

“Ethically and morally, I won’t do that to someone else,” he said.

The board has contacted all the landowners before. Could it send out a survey to attempt to see if they are for or against the sewer?

“The problem is, I will tell you, between the humane society and this project, I’ve been working seven days a week, and I’m not going to do it any longer,” Werling said.

What about taking Woodland Lake out of the project?

Werling said the project would be too small to receive government grants.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s official publications on grant assistance, there is no size requirement for receiving a grant for wastewater treatment.

Future

In early January, the Brown County Commissioners approached Brown County Redevelopment Commission President Dave Redding to see if the RDC could help get the sewer project moving again.

At their Jan. 19 meeting, Redding presented the full RDC with a proposal that they adopt or sponsor the Bean Blossom/Woodland Lake project.

Redding also proposed that the RDC try to find a way to ensure as low a rate as possible for sewer customers. He said he had received the impression some residents are concerned about how high the bills could be.

Redding said $80 per household — a number that project engineer Gary Ladd had offered as a potential base monthly rate — would be too much.

A portion of the base rate is used to pay back loans used to build the sewer. One way it can be lowered is to fund as much of the sewer as possible without loans. However, Ladd’s estimate was for the lowest expected use of borrowed money.

Redding also said this is a good opportunity to have many different entities learn how to work together — the redevelopment commission, county commissioners and council, county board of health and sewer district board.

Redding said he was aware of how much personality conflicts have stood in the way of past progress, but instead of calling others out, he said he felt it was best to offer to be better himself and try to set an example to follow.

If the project is successful, it would serve as a concrete example of Brown County’s ability to complete a multi-million-dollar, multi-year project, Redding said.

“It would be a great confidence builder. It would be something that we would point to for the next big project that we engage in,” he said.

Next sewer project meeting

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Brown County Commissioners have tentatively agreed to meet jointly with the Brown County Regional Sewer District Board Tuesday, Feb. 7 to discuss the Bean Blossom/Woodland Lake sewer project and what role the redevelopment commission will take in moving it forward. The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. in the Salmon Room at the County Office Building.

SHARE
Author photo
Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.