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City to press Aqua Indiana takeover

Mayor, others cite water quality at southwest utility

– The city of Fort Wayne will attempt a forced takeover of Aqua Indiana’s southwest water utility, Mayor Tom Henry announced Thursday.

The private utility has long been a source of complaints of poor quality water and low pressure, but a severe drought this summer dropped pressure so low that City Utilities began providing water to about 1,200 of Aqua’s 12,000 customers.

Henry said Fort Wayne residents in the southwest part of the city can wait no longer for quality water and decent water pressure. He plans to introduce a bill to City Council before the end of the year seeking approval to begin the condemnation process, a move hailed by City Council President Tom Smith, R-1st, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

“I think it’s become pretty clear to me and a lot of people out here that Aqua Indiana is seriously struggling to provide adequate water,” said Long, who lives in the service area and pressured the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission this summer to take action. “I’ve never been a fan of eminent domain, but I’m very concerned about Aqua Indiana’s ability to serve this area effectively.”

Smith called the announcement “great news” and said he expects the proposal to get a warm reception from the council.

“If we want people to keep coming to Fort Wayne, we’ve got to have good water for them,” Smith said. “I would imagine we’re going to get complete and unanimous support from the council. I know I’ll be working toward that myself.”

Long said his only concern would be that the city might put a surcharge on bills in the area to pay for the takeover.

“We’re paying hugely high rates out here for lousy service, so I don’t want to see people pay even more,” Long said. “My concern is for the ratepayers.”

City officials estimated the average Aqua Indiana customer in southwest Fort Wayne would save between $160 and $220 annually by switching, and those that are using water softeners or filters could save even more.

Aqua Indiana President Tom Bruns told The Journal Gazette he was disappointed in the announcement, both in that he thought negotiations had been proceeding well and that Aqua officials were not notified ahead of time of the city’s plans.

“I’m surprised that since we had developed some good discussions that we didn’t even get a phone call in advance,” Bruns said. “It seems difficult to comprehend that the city wants to spend millions of dollars to try to take over a utility in a time of fiscal austerity.”

Bruns said Aqua Indiana provides high-quality water similar to Fort Wayne’s and that the system has more than enough pressure to meet demand.

He said officials tested water from homes getting City Utilities water during the drought and compared it to homes with Aqua Indiana water and found “the water qualities were very comparable.”

“We believe with the investments made in recent years, the water quality issue that existed a long time ago aren’t there today,” Bruns said.

But customers at Henry’s announcement Thursday disagreed with Bruns’ assessment.

“You have to experience it to believe it. It’s atrocious,” said Hank Mazzola, who was among those using City Utilities water during the drought and was disappointed to have to go back to Aqua Indiana. “The smell, the taste, the faucets and sinks that are corroded. When we went on City Utilities water, you could know instantly; … you could actually drink it.”

Under the condemnation process, the city will go to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to try to prove its case that it should take over the utility and determine a price for its assets.

The city took over Aqua Indiana’s north utility several years ago. That process took about three years.

Henry said the process will go faster if Aqua Indiana cooperates in negotiations, but however long it takes, it’s important to get the process started.

Fire Chief Amy Biggs said good water pressure is vital for being able to effectively fight fires and noted that the alarms went off at the southwest fire stations during the drought indicating the fire-suppression sprinkler systems inside were going off.

They weren’t, she said – the water pressure had dropped so low the system assumed the sprinklers were running. That issue stopped as soon as the switch was made to City Utilities, she said.

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