Could water regionalization still happen in Greencastle-Antrim?

PAT FRIDGEN

A regionalized water system may not occur, but many people wish it would. Two years of negotiations are stuck, with three Antrim Township supervisors, in the majority, refusing to sell the Antrim Township Municipal Authority water system to Greencastle Area Franklin County Water Authority. An outside party that took a risk in order to secure a grant for ATMA may be required to pay back that $1.25 million. Different opinions prevail on what happened when and who is responsible for what. The Echo Pilot reviewed documents and public records to try to put everything in order.

GAFCWA in February 2009 offered to purchase the ATMA water system, due to H2O PA Act 34 of 2008, which had grant money for municipalities. The program provided funds equal to two-thirds the cost of infrastructure expenses, and grant guidelines encouraged the consolidation of regional systems. Greencastle authority manager Kenneth Womack said the sale hinged on getting the money. He had applied for $2.6 million.

In April 2009 representatives from GAFCWA, ATMA, Antrim and Greencastle conducted a joint meeting and after discussion, the supervisors voted 4-0 to endorse the sale of the ATMA system. Those in favor were Sam Miller, Curtis Myers, Fred Young III and Rick Baer. James Byers was absent. ATMA members Bob Schemmerling, Bob Coladonato, Elwood Myers and Roy Baum also said yes, while Rodney Eberly voted no.

After that positive action, Womack was able to report to the state the cooperative effort and finish the paperwork. He also started the wheels turning on Greencastle's due diligence, to determine its own financial condition, and the value of ATMA's system, through the analysis of an independent consultant. That summer Womack learned GAFCWA received only $520,000 in grant money, which was also designated to help in the purchase of a well from the school district and to replace a water main on Route 16. The authority decided to continue with the purchase.

Meanwhile, Antrim was applying for a grant too. It needed to upgrade its water plant and had been approved for a PennVest loan. Schemmerling recalled last week that the loan would have been a burden to customers, "then Mike came along."

Mike is Mike Ross, president of Franklin County Area Development Corporation.

Antrim's grant

ATMA had applied for a Pennsylvania Infrastructure Development Program grant through the Department of Community and Economic Development. Township officials are looking for a copy of the original application, but believe it was submitted up to a year before the award was announced in April 2009. A requirement to accepting the $1.25 million was that the municipality guarantee the project would result in 75 full-time jobs and attract investment of at least $20 million within three years. Since Antrim Township did not have commitments from any developers at the time, Ross offered to put his name on the line as a guarantor for the grant. The fine print read that if the two clauses were not fulfilled, the developer, in this case FCADC, would be liable for a penalty equal to the full amount of the grant, unless the penalty was waived because of circumstances beyond the developer's control.

George E. Cornelius, DCED acting secretary, notified ATMA chair Elwood Myers on April 6 that the grant had been approved.

"I would like to congratulate you on behalf of the Rendell Administration for promoting the economic development of your community and trust this grant will aid your efforts," wrote Cornelius.

On May 6 Myers and Ross agreed to the conditions, and that same day Myers and Schemmerling signed the contract.

The grant was not awarded without some help. State senator Rich Alloway and the late senator Terry Punt pushed it through.

"I went to Harrisburg and fought to get it sent to them," Alloway said last week. "It was my first grant for the district. I was so excited."

Breakdown

As offers and counteroffers passed between GAFCWA and Antrim Township, some changes to the purchase offer were accepted, but one was not. Antrim inserted a detail in December 2010 that residents of the Hess Development, which is in the Greencastle service area, be exempt from connecting to public water. The 10 homes were notified in 2007 that when a public line was installed in 2008, they would have to hook up, based on Antrim's ordinance and on state law. The surprised residents, Antrim and Greencastle negotiated a compromise on price and timeline in April 2008, but it was never formally approved by all parties.

Young, a resident of Hess, along with Baer and Curtis Myers, oppose the water system sale now, based on their interpretation of Act 34, which took effect Sept. 2, 2008. Young said in January that he thought it meant property owners before that date were exempt. Myers said at another joint meeting a few weeks ago that "(the legislature) forgot to grandfather in. We asked Greencastle out of the kindness of their hearts to waive Hess."

Greencastle contends that it is following the previous law and the new law, which did not allow exceptions, and that the Hess issue was beyond the scope of relevant negotiations on the sale of the water plant. It has stated that for any public water service to survive, it must utilize mandatory connections. Right now, other customers were picking up expenses that should be shared by the Hess residents.

Ross has watched the discussions go downhill for the past several months and is nervous he will have to repay the grant out of FCADC operating funds. He mediated a session between the two bodies last November to iron out differences on representation and purchase price. He considered the meeting productive. In December the supervisors added changes submitted by Young, one of which was related to Hess. All five supervisors voted to send the revised agreement to GAFCWA.

Ross wants the regionalization to occur, because the Atapco and Norfolk Southern projects would fulfill the terms of the grant. They are now Greencastle customers. Then he could keep his money.

Moving on?

Young and Myers were adamant at a joint meeting April 14 that their stance represented the best interests of the township. Borough of Greencastle personnel thought otherwise, that Antrim was letting 10 households take precedence over the entire community.

Alloway has been tracking the discussion. He thinks the grant is a great deal for all of Greencastle and Antrim.

"DEP and the folks in Harrisburg wanted this consolidation," he said. "That's how we sold it (the grant) to them. That's part of the deal."

He hopes resolution is found fast.

"This is a big deal to bring commercial development to exit 3, to help with the tax base for the school district. It's important to have infrastructure in place to bring companies to our area."

Rep. Todd Rock is also aware of the disagreement. He wants a regionalized water system.

"I encourage people to work together. A merge will be good for everyone in the end."

Different government officials think the impasse cannot be broken. GAFCWA will move on to serve its 1,700 Greencastle customers and 455 Antrim customers as it always has, said one member, but the purchase offer still stands. The authority is willing to combine services.

At the ATMA meeting April 25, members were divided on what to do with a huge capacity of water, now able to be treated at the upgraded water plant, but with no one to use it. With only 340 customers, they agreed it would be hard for those people to pay to extend the line. Perhaps developers would finance it, or the authority could get a loan from Antrim, one suggested. None of the five members was interested in selling the system to a private party, an idea supervisors gleaned from a Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors meeting recently. That would not create regionalization, and Schemmerling said, "To take grant money and then go private is not appealing to me."

They hope to have a business plan mapped out in the next several months, on what to do with Antrim's water system.