Focus group in hot water

Committee struggling to reach consensus

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Unable to reach a consensus between two feuding water districts within the city limits, a focus group will spend its next meeting assessing its own validity.

"We have decided at the next focus group meeting to look at the focus group itself to see how it is working, to look at the validity of the focus group," said Mount Werner Water Manager Bob Stoddard.

The group was formed after the failure of a water authority agreement in 2002. It is comprised of four representatives each from the city and Mount Werner Water. The group's intent was to take steps toward consolidating the two entities.

However, far from reaching consolidation, the group seems to be stumbling even in the baby steps it is taking toward that goal.

In an effort to resolve one lawsuit and to prevent a potential future dispute, Bill Martin, a city representative on the Water Focus Group, said the group's city representatives came up with a proposal last week. That proposal was quickly countered by focus group members representing the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District.

"(The city's proposal) was an effort for us to move forward, to put the past behind us," Martin told the City Council at a Tuesday meeting. "In candor, what we are talking about here is power. We are not talking about money, not talking about water. The question is who controls that money."

Under the city representatives' proposal, the city would forgive the amount that Mount Werner Water and Sanitation had been billing its customers for sewage the city was primarily paying to treat, which occurred for years. In return, the city asked to assume responsibility for directly billing wastewater customers in the city and Mount Werner districts. The proposal was given to Mount Werner representatives the day before Thanksgiving.

The following Monday, at the focus group's next meeting, Mount Werner representatives offered a counterproposal. They supported the city's offer to not account for the sewage usage, but said they wanted to continue billing their customers directly.

Mount Werner Water Manager Bob Stoddard contended that it is not in the customers' best interest to receive two separate bills for water and sewer services: one bill from Mount Werner for water and another from the city for sewer.

"We are trying to run ourselves like a business," Stoddard said. "It is simpler to write one check as opposed to two."

The Water Focus Group approved Mount Werner's counter proposal by a 5-2 vote, with Martin and Mount Werner representative Joe Brennan casting the dissenting votes.

On Tuesday, the City Council said it wanted more information before going ahead with either of the proposals and recommended once again that the Water Focus Group tape record its meetings.

The council decided it was not comfortable forgiving the past sewage fees without knowing first how much the years of free sewage treatment cost. Rough estimates on both the city and Mount Werner sides range from $18,000 to more than $260,000.

"I am uncomfortable with the city giving away the citizens' assets with no thought or any idea of how much it is," Councilwoman Susan Dellinger said. "I want that clarified before we even talk about even setting something aside."

The council also made a request for city staff to dig back 30 years or more into negotiations between the city and Mount Werner to uncover handshake deals and undocumented agreements. Council members hope such research might shed light on whether one side fared better than the other.

"A historical reference needs to be made so there is potential of putting the past behind us," Councilman Ken Brenner said.

The two recent proposals were intended to settle a lawsuit filed by Tom Sharp, the former president, director and attorney for the Fish Creek Water and Sanitation District.

The lawsuit concerned a 1995 dissolution agreement under which the Fish Creek Water District was taken over by the city. Sharp said the agreement contains conflicting stipulations: one that stated all contracts from the Fish Creek Water District would be terminated and the other listed contracts as assets for the city.

The issue came up about a year and a half ago when the city tapped into a Mount Werner water line in the old Fish Creek district. A 1979 agreement between the Fish Creek and Mount Werner districts gave Fish Creek blanket permission to tap into the Mount Werner water lines without charge and to use that water at determined rate.

The agreement was part of a deal under which Mount Werner Water took over the Sundance Plaza area, which was in the Fish Creek boundary but the district was unable to accommodate.

Two years ago, the city used that 1979 service agreement to justify having the Angler's Retreat project tap into Mount Werner water lines. The city potentially could use the same agreement to handle the expansion of the Sundance Plaza on the opposite side of Anglers Drive.

On Thursday, at a District Court status review of the case, a hearing date was set for June 7.

"There is discussion to continue to try to resolve this," city attorney Tony Lettunich said. "They decided today that it is important to keep a date certain, that is why they went with a hearing date setting."

Under the proposal from city representatives of the Water Focus Group, the lawsuit would be resolved. The city representatives proposed the city could connect to the Mount Werner Water utility lines in the Fish Creek area, and the city could collect for those tap fees made on the city side.

In the Mount Werner Water counterproposal, they agreed to allow the city to collect for tap fees and even said it would pay for the installation of a two-way meter that would determine if city or Mount Werner water is being used.

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