Water merger just one step away

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot

Three out of four want to proceed with joint water authority, so far

As the result of several committee meetings between representatives of the Borough of Greencastle and Antrim Township, a long-awaited creation of a joint water authority may soon take place. The committee received a proposal from Greencastle Area Franklin County Water Authority on Feb. 18, asking for approval of the concept. The next night the township Board of Supervisors endorsed the letter unanimously. On Feb. 25, Antrim Township Municipal Authority did the same. Borough Council gets the document next Monday. If all parties agree to move forward with the idea of a single entity serving the water needs of the area, the two authorities will work out the details.

Committee members from each body are: GAFCWA, Jason Gerhart and Bob Miller; Council, Charles Eckstine and Frank Webster Jr.; Supervisors, Rick Baer and John Alleman; and ATMA, Rodney Eberly and Chad Murray.

Greencastle manager Susan Armstrong and Antrim administrator Brad Graham are also involved in the talks.

GAFCWA members Gerhart, Miller, Greg Rock and Rodney Rose composed a letter advocating the merger of water assets. They asked for consideration and support to best manage, improve efficiency and control costs for current and future customers of a unified water distribution system.

For years, the letter stated, authority and municipal officials had recognized that a single system would spur development and implementation of water resource planning. The idea was formalized Feb. 9, 2009 with a letter of intent from GAFCWA to purchase the ATMA system. The council made a commitment to a merge that March 9, and the supervisors on April 14.

In fits and starts over the past four years, the notion of a merge never went away, but faced obstacles from one governing agency or another on the fine points of the deal. GAFCWA hoped that past was the past.

"Although there has been a collective effort to merge the two systems, the two Authorities have been challenged to move forward primarily due to conflicting perceptions and political differences," wrote GAFCWA.

Benefits

GAFCWA stressed that a joint merge of water systems would expand the customer base and water sources, which would yield efficient and cost-effective operations. The burden of maintenance and line replacement would be spread out among current and new township and borough customers.

GAFCWA serves 1700 customers in Antrim, 455 in Greencastle, and its system is permitted to handle 1.6 million gallons of water per day.

ATMA serves 340 customers and is permitted for 800,000 gallons per day.

Since 2008, Greencastle has brought in $131,400 in tapping fees while Antrim gained $333,348. GAFCWA acknowledged that new customers would be located in the township. If a merge did not take place, it said, GAFCWA would be limited in its service area and water rates would go up significantly as it replaced older lines and sought new water sources.

GAFCWA made several more points. The financial health of the authority would improve with additional customers but no increase in staffing levels. In addition, duplication of services would be eliminated with just one dedicated staff and the same set of standards for both systems. Finally, ATMA assets, including two raw water wells, would provide flexibility and resources for the entire territory.

Two become one

Over the years, the township and borough have sparred over fair representation on an authority serving both municipalities. GAFCWA

hoped those days were over. The letter stated that instead of having borough council appoint members nominated by the supervisors, it would simplify the process by allowing Antrim to appoint two members.

A merge would eliminate conflict over who would provide water service to properties on the border, such as occurred with Antrim Commons Business Park, said the letter.

GAFCWA concluded, "The 'two sides' do not have opposing interests, rather both sides have the same long-term objective...meeting their customers' needs for quality potable water while limiting rate increases."

Each entity was faced with the decision of whether to move forward.

GAFCWA implored, "The board members were appointed to act in the best interest of the customers free from politically-driven decisions, and after long and thorough investigations, we believe allowing the ATMA water system to join the GAFCWA is in our best interest. By having one authority join the other, we show the community our unified commitment to work together in order to provide the best and most efficient service to our customers, regardless of past political issues."

The negotiators

Antrim supervisors Fred Young III, Pat Heraty, James Byers, Baer and Alleman voted in the affirmative to proceed. Graham said all the joint water committee members were on board with the concept.

"Once this moves forward, the politics are out of it," said Baer. "The two authorities will look out for the best interests of their customers."

Heraty added, "We want to get out of the water business. I'm all for it."

With some caution from ATMA solicitor Linus Fenicle that the Municipal Authorities Act had to be followed, that board was supportive as long as Antrim had the ability to name its own people.

Eberly favored a merge. "This is presented as a joint water authority - not a sale, not a hostile takeover. There may be some gray in the letter, but most of it is black and white."

He also said ATMA was not the board that had been political during discussions, stalling negotiations or referring back to events from 1960. A joint venture was necessary to protect the water, he stressed. Baer, Dale Hostetter, Murray and Myers agreed with him.

If the merge conversations go forward, ATMA members Murray, Eberly and Myers will negotiate alongside GAFCWA members Gerhart, Miller, Rose and Rock. Rose is a GAFCWA customer but lives in Antrim. Myers is not a water customer of either authority.

Proponents of a joint water authority for Greencastle and Antrim Township see a benefit for current and future customers of GAFCWA and ATMA. The reasons included in a proposal are: • Costs for water system improvements will be shared by old and new customers. • A joint authority can meet the needs for service in the growing township. • Employee expenses will not rise. • Services will not be duplicated. • More sources of water helps the entire area. • Greencastle and Antrim Township residents will be fairly represented. • Future conflicts should disappear. • Customer service trumps politics.

What it means