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Water District’s offer deserves consideration

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Editorial: Aug. 30, 2013

ISSUE: Elizabethtown’s municipal water system
OUR VIEW: Time to decide about the future

Chemistry brought the question to the table. Issues of community growth and development make it significant. Financial decisions may settle it.

For about two years, Hardin County Water District No. 2 has been asking the City of Elizabethtown — its wholesale customer — to make a decision about changing the treatment process used to clean its tap water.

To meet current demand, Elizabethtown purchases more than 1 million gallons per day from the water district.

To meet future demand, the district has been working since 2008 to find additional water resources.

The district can treat 8.1 million gallons daily at its processing plant at White Mills but during a prolonged dry spell last year usage reached the top end of its limits. With a megasitedevelopment in Glendale awaiting an industrial client and residential and business growth across its service area, district officials actively sought solutions. The Ohio River seemed to provide the only obvious solution.

The district entered contractual agreements with Louisville Water Co., which can supply as much as 10 million gallons per day through a connection to be built near Lebanon Junction.

Louisville Water uses a chloramine treatment process as opposed to the free chlorine system that Hardin Water District No. 2 uses.

The two products don’t mix well. After much debate and objections, the district has settled on investing in new treatment equipment and employee training to make its system compatible with Louisville.

Hardin County Water District No. 1, which also has a link with Louisville through Fort Knox, had to make a similar decision.

Now it’s Elizabethtown’s turn to decide.

The city has been presented with three options: Retain its chlorine-based treatment system and stop purchasing from the water district, invest millions in a conversion or sell its production facilities and distribution network to Water District No. 2.

The district has offered to pay $400,000 per year for 20 years or a total of $8 million. That offer, which has been defined as negotiable in open discussions between the two organizations, stands before the Elizabethtown City Council.

The city may have options if it wants to remain in the water business. The reservoir at Freeman Lake could hold more water, but the present treatment plants cannot sustain daily demands during peak usage, according to information shared at a recent council meeting.

Providing vital services such as water, sewer, natural gas plus police and fire protection are key reasons for the city to exist. It’s an emotional and potentially controversial decision to sell out.

The water district would be required by the state Public Service Commission to bring all its rates in line. Based on precedent, district officials believe a five-year tiered schedule of increases may be allowed. The increase for a minimal usage household customer would be 85 percent.

Staying in the water business would allow the city to retain its control over pricing and the PSC regulations. However, a conversion to chloramine treatment or expansion of treatment capacity again would require rates to rise.

In the recent past, Elizabethtown lost as much as $1 million annually on water and sewer. Concerned about public feedback, previous councils had been reluctant to raise rates to match escalating costs.

The city’s focus on status quo appears to be in direct contrast to the water district’s attempts to stay on the go. It has been looking for solutions and has waited two years for City Hall to provide an answer about its plans.

With 2014 dedicated to implementation of its chloramine operation, which is due to start in January 2015, time is running out.

Although the economic impact for household users will be painful, it is not unwarranted or unexpected. Three out of 10 Elizabethtown city residents already receive water bills from Hardin County Water District No. 2. They not only pay more for water but their city taxes go to help subsidize and hold down water costs for fellow Elizabethtown residents.

That’s not an equitable situation.

By the recommendation of its own financial officer, the time for Elizabethtown to withdraw from the water business has arrived. Barring a compelling new solution, the council would be wise to act on the offer on the table.

This editorial represents a consensus of The News-Enterprise's editorial board.