How will city pay for sewer separation? It’s a fair question

The need is obvious. The city of South Bend is bound to proceed with a project to separate storm and sanitary sewers. The task is beginning as it should: in neighborhoods that have the greatest demonstrated need.

That the project will be expensive is apparent. But there is one thing that could be clearer: the cost of the project, and how it will be charged to city residents. The city’s vagueness in projecting the cost is hard to understand

What portion will be charged to sewer rate-payers, and over what period of time? And, how much will be borne by South Bend’s property taxpayers?

City officials have said that it is too soon to predict the amount of the sewer rate increase that is expected in 2006, or the tax bonding burden likely to be placed on property owners.

We don’t know why it’s too soon. The city’s deadline for presenting its long-range plan for reducing combined sewer overflows to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management was Dec. 31. South Bend clearly is pretty far along in its plans for the short-term project that will rebuild sewers in the Edison Park, Harter Heights and Cedar/Rockne/Madison areas. It expects to know where the new storm sewer lines should go by the end of this year. Construction and burying of the lines would be completed in 2005. Then the city would be ready to separate the storm and sanitary sewers.

Costs ought to be predictable for this phase. The city sold bonds for $11.5 million this past September. It is using $6.5 million from the September bond issue for the scheduled project.

How much more money will be needed, and how will the need affect sewer rates over the next several years? That is a fair question. The city should know the answer.

The projected cost of the grand plan — $117 million over 10 years, the city says — understandably might be more speculative. But the cost of the upcoming work and its impact on rates and taxes ought to be calculable.

The South Bend officials have known for decades that city sewage would continue to overflow into the St. Joseph River — and back up into residents’ basements — until the system was upgraded. While South Bend by all reports has done a good job of maintaining and upgrading the sewer plant, it has, publicly at any rate, done a poor job of anticipating the separation project that loomed ahead. Pressure from state and federal environmental mandates forced the city to face reality.

For 14 years, South Bend congratulated itself on not raising residents’ sewage rates. Then, in 2001 it responded with new urgency to the sewage overflow crisis. South Bend went from no sewer rate hikes to a massive increase that targeted large-scale and out-of-town users. The hike led to a lawsuit initiated by a number of large users and a threat from the University of Notre Dame to build its own sewage treatment plant.

The outcome was a 24-percent rate hike for residential users and negotiated rates for some larger users outside the city. A 5-percent increase for residents will begin this month.

And after that? City officials claim they can’t predict the future. When it comes to costs of public services and how residents will be assessed, we say it is their duty to predict the future, and to plan for it.

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