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The Plain Dealer & Sun - 2/25/2009
JNRU moves ahead on sewer plant
Stimulus money to fund $3.8 million project

A $3.8 million project to modify the Jennings Northwest Regional Utilities' wastewater treatment plant would have a price tag over twice as much as it cost to build the facility in the first place.

According to JNRU board president Ed Whitaker, none of the costs would be borne by the utility's 1,300 customers, nearly all of whom are Country Squire Lakes residents.

The money for the project reportedly would come from the federal stimulus project. JNRU board members, utility officials and State Rep. Dave Cheatham (D-North Vernon) have been appealing to Indiana officials for years for financial assistance. Now it appears that those efforts are paying off for the utility that has been in an economic funk ever since an attempted sewer system expansion project failed financially disastrously nine years ago.

"This is like manna from heaven," Whitaker said. "Our customers can't afford higher bills and the utility can't afford to go into any more debt. The plant urgently needs to be fixed, too. We are pretty optimistic that is going to happen."

At a hearing last week, the utility and its engineering firm, Commonwealth Engineers of Indianapolis, unveiled an ambitious plan to upgrade the plant. The $1.8 million plant, designed by the defunct Chaffee and Associates engineering firm of Batesville and built by O'Mara Contracting of North Vernon, went online in 2001 and has never worked properly, according to experts.

Renewed efforts in the last few months to forge a partnership between the city of North Vernon, while encouraging, ran into an economic roadblock. According to that proposal, JNRU would close its plant ant pipe its sewage to North Vernon's current wastewater treatment plant or possibly to a new plant on the city's southwest side.

"We appreciate North Vernon talking to us and the effort the city has made," Whitaker said. "But it boils down to North Vernon can't get their costs low enough to make such an arrangement affordable for us."

Meanwhile, JNRU's plant repeatedly continues to fall out of compliance with governmental regulations regarding the levels of ammonia, nitrogen and dissolved oxygen released into Six Mile Creek. The problem is particularly bad during cold-weather months when the plant, which uses sequencing batch reactors, cannot efficiently treat the sewer. The plant in essence freezes up like an ice cube.

The plant's maintenance costs also keep escalating, adding to the project's urgency.

"The state wants us to get things moving," Whitaker said. "IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management) and IFA (Indiana Financial Authority) have been very helpful the last few months."

Through creative financing such as principal forgiveness and negative interest, the state will provide all costs for what will basically be a retrofitting of JNRU's wastewater treatment plant.

"The plant will be redone so it is totally different," Whitaker said. "The collection system will be replaced, which will eliminate a lot of the cold air affecting the wastewater. This is a proven system that won't be affected by cold temperatures as is the case now."

JNRU already had compiled much of the engineering and technical information, which has helped put the project on the fast track.

The plan's timetable calls for construction to begin in July with operation to be initiated by late 2010.

"This will be good not just for the people of CSL but the whole county," Whitaker said, noting that economic development has suffered as a result of JNRU's financial problems.

The utility's debt - over $9 million counting a seven-year-old $5.3 million state loan - will remain, but Whitaker said the state has indicated it will lower interest rates and extend the note to 40 years in order to lower costs. The savings would be passed on to customers who now face some of the highest sewer and water rates in the area.

The state has already approved JNRU for a $787,000 temporary loan to help with higher operating expenses.

"We're hopeful our rates will go down, but with the economy the way it is we can't be sure of that," Whitaker said. "The people of CSL badly need some financial relief and we hope we can do that through lower utility bills."
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