Legislators studying Indiana's regional sewer districts heard complaints Tuesday that some of those districts are abusing their powers as they push forward projects to extend sewer lines into rural areas. At least one district head called the criticism unfair.
The Environmental Quality Service Council heard three hours of testimony about Indiana's more than 90 regional sewer districts, most of which are appointed boards that oversee sewer and water line expansions in unincorporated areas.
Carroll County resident Pat Robertson told members of the Environmental Quality Service Council that the Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District in northwestern Indiana has been heavy-handed, secretive and "a perfect example of government gone wrong."
Robertson said the district has forced residents around Lake Freeman about 75 miles northwest of Indianapolis to shutter what in some cases were perfectly good septic systems and pay a $1,000 connection fee to use the city's sewers.
She told the panel that financial burden, on top of the cost of having homes hooked up to sewers, had left a widow and a soldier serving in Afghanistan in danger of losing their homes. Robertson said the district had placed sewer liens on several properties.
"Across this state RSDs have chosen the role of forcing citizens to their knees, forcing them to pay a sewer lien to save their homes from a tax sale. Is this truly the role that was intended?" Robertson asked.
She said residents from numerous other Indiana counties have contacted her to commiserate with their own grievances about aggressive actions by their regional sewer districts.
Carroll County Commissioner Bill Brown told the panel that the Twin Lakes district had not been forthcoming with either county residents or county officials about its recent extension of Monticello's sewer lines along Lake Freeman.
"This rudeness and disrespect has been totally out of control," Brown said.
Wayne Garrison, president of the board of trustees of Twin Lakes regional Sewer District, said the complaints are unfair. He said the district had responded to residents' concerns by lowering the original $2,500 cost of each sewer connection to $1,000 for the 1,200 Lake Freeman-area residents required to connect to the city's sewers.
Garrison said the district had taken steps to explain the $22 million project that was finished in April to homeowners, but some residents didn't respond to mailed project notices.
"There's no person who's lived in this district for any length of time who didn't know the sewer district would be coming through. Most did not care — until they found out they were going to have to hook up," he said.
Garrison said the sewer project was needed to improve surface water quality and safeguard well water from raw sewage leaking from septic systems built in the mid-20th century for fishing and hunting cottages that then lined Lake Freeman.
Mike Mettler, director of the State Department of Health's environmental public health division, said Indiana has about 800,000 homes with septic systems and that a quarter or more of those are failing or were improperly installed.
"These systems have a finite life," he told the panel. "They don't last forever."
Sen. Beverly Gard, a Greenfield Republican who chairs the council, said the panel would consider Tuesday's testimony and, depending on its conclusions, may recommend that lawmakers next session make administrative or legislative actions targeting the districts.
Ted Stubbs, the president of the Association of Regional Sewer Districts, told the panel that sewer systems attract controversy because they are among the most expensive public infrastructure projects.
But he said sewer extensions have improved water quality, eliminated public health threats and boosted property values across the state.
"This has not happened without controversy or problems, but it has made many areas of Indiana a better place to live, work and play," he said.
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