BUSINESS

Greencastle, Antrim meet at the table on water issue

PAT FRIDGEN, Echo Pilot
Rodney Eberly and Charles Eckstine may not see eye to eye on everything, but they do find common ground on some issues surrounding a unified water system for Greencastle and Antrim Township.

Two parties in the middle of the Greencastle/Antrim Township friction on how-when-if-why the two municipal water authorities should partner, met with the Echo Pilot last week. Charles Eckstine, president of Greencastle Borough Council, and Rodney Eberly, chairman of Antrim Township Municipal Authority (ATMA), sat down to share perspectives on their roles in the years-long discussions, which also included Greencastle Area Franklin County Water Authority (GAFCWA), and the Antrim Township supervisors. Eckstine suggested the meeting, to share information the public was not privvy to, or had not chosen to explore on its own.

Discussions began in 2009, when GAFCWA offered to purchase the ATMA water system. Highs and lows punctuated negotiations, but no substantial agreement on terms really occurred. A committee formed in the fall of 2012 with representatives from the four bodies, trying to move the issue forward and create some sort of single water authority.

This February, GAFCWA signed a proposal to form a joint authority, though the word 'merge' was also used, which caused some confusion.

Believing they understood the intent of the letter, the supervisors and ATMA signed it. Borough council did not.

With an unclear future, some people most closely involved in establishing one authority to serve the water needs of the entire community, were angry, puzzled or still optimistic. The committee met again Monday, March 18, to consider where to go from here. The session was not open to the public.

Fast facts

GAFCWA has 2,155 customers (1,700 live in the township). ATMA has 340 customers (Hykes Road and Cedarbrook development).

Greencastle's assets, per 2011 audit, are $13.1 million. Antrim's assets, dated 2011, are $3.2 million.

Greencastle's debt is $3.3 million, with a $500,000 chunk to be paid off on March 1, 2014. The rest should disappear in 2022. Antrim's debt is $965,000 ($594,000 was a loan from the township).

Greencastle is permitted to process 1.6 million gallons per day. Antrim is permitted for 800,000.

Greencastle uses about half of its capacity. Antrim uses about nine percent.

According to law, only water customers can pay the debt.

The municipalities behind each authority are ultimately responsible for debt in case of a default.

Greencastle's 2013 budget is $1.6 million, with a $476,000 deficit to be covered by a transfer from reserves. The extra expense was related to the U.S. 11 water main project. Antrim's budget is $218,300, with an expected surplus of $21,000.

Two perspectives

Eberly and Eckstine clarified that elected officials, the council and supervisors, were responsible to their taxpaying constituents.

Appointed officials on the authorities were responsible to their customers. Therefore, each came to the table from a different perspective.

"We're never talking about the same thing," said Eberly.

He tended to agree with the borough leader that a GAFCWA/ATMA merge might not work right now.

Eckstine stated that a merge would benefit Antrim immediately, because it was "maxed out" and owed $3,000 per customer, and the only way to cover that was to raise the rates. Under a merge, even if Greencastle could legally pass along that debt to its customers, it would not be fair. He didn't want Antrim to borrow against Greencastle's assets. He added that the GAFCWA proposal didn't save Greencastle money, but it would aid Antrim in terms of less township staff time devoted to water tasks. He saw the debt as the stumbling block to a joint water authority.

Eckstine was also glad the purchase offer was rejected by the supervisors. He thought GAFCWA did a good job on due diligence as far as physical assets, but probably not on the financial end of operations.

Eberly acknowledged that if ATMA did not need money, it could use its own assets to grow the small water system. By the same token, Greencastle was landlocked, he said. "The pendulum swings to the potential for growth in Antrim."

It had the open land for new construction, which would bring in tap fees to fund capital improvements. New customers were necessary to protect current customers. His goal was still to blend the two authorities.

Eckstine saw the best solution as a large customer that would cover its own expense of getting water from ATMA.

"We want to see them do well, because we are basically one community," he said.

The two wanted to forge ahead, regardless of what transpired as a result of council's failure to sign on.

"If we join down the road, that benefits everyone," Eberly said. "I wish every person who talks about this would show up at a meeting and get educated. It is not something we can do overnight, even if all four agree. A lot of people, including our politicians, don't come to our meetings and don't understand."

Eckstine and Eberly said some officials and the public had a misconception that an authority would try to control growth. That was illegal, since GAFCWA and ATMA were established to provide water service, and were bound to that obligation.

On the spot

The Echo Pilot asked both men specific questions. The first responses are from Eckstine.

EP: Can GAFCWA continue to stand alone?

CE: We are good for a long time, because there is no growth in the borough. Our concern for a joint authority is how ATMA can secure funds for township growth and not put our customers at risk.

EP: How is GAFCWA covering its debts?

CE: Very well.

EP: What is the ATMA financial picture?

CE: Bleak, because it is a small system.

EP: Can ATMA stand alone?

CE: It will be very difficult if it can't expand.

EP: Why does Greencastle need or want Antrim water?

CE: We (council) don't want to do either. If GAFCWA finds a solution, we are OK with joining with Antrim on a contractual basis.

The second responses are from Eberly.

EP: Can ATMA continue to stand alone?

RE: This process has opened my eyes. We don't want to burden Antrim customers. Some unserved areas want water, but it costs money to put it in.

EP: How is ATMA covering its debts?

RE: User fees cover our bills and loan payments.

EP: What is the GAFCWA financial picture?

RE: As a Greencastle customer myself, my concern is 10 years out, if the rates go up. I hate to see raw water sitting and not being used. Between the two authorities, another 1.5 million gallons of permitted water a day is available.

EP: Can GAFCWA continue to stand alone?

RE: Yes. Both can, but need more financial foresight to operate efficiently in 20 years.

EP: Why does Antrim need or want Greencastle water?

RE: I'm selfish. As an Antrim Township resident and a Greencastle customer, I want to ensure the rate structure stays where it's at.

Both men said running a water system was expensive, especially with mandated tests and substantial electrical bills. The process to achieve any joint venture was complicated and slow, but it was important for both sides to keep talking.