ALPENA – municipalities are forming water authorities to help ensure equity between communities and customers and reduce operating costs, officials from several existing Michigan authorities said.
Alpena and Alpena Township can create one agency – essentially a separate board of directors that oversees infrastructure or services in multiple municipalities – to end the city and municipality’s nearly ten-year struggle over water and sewage rates. Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora and Alpena Municipality Leader Nathan Skibbe said they had productive conversations.
The community, which buys water and sanitation services from the city, disagreed with a rate hike from the city, and the ensuing legal battle rose as high as the Michigan Supreme Court, which recently sent the case back to the local court for trial.
Officials have released few details on what an agency might look like in the Alpena area, but members of established Michigan agencies say cost benefits and improved interstate relationships result from its establishment. Committees made up of appointed representatives from each municipality served by the authority make decisions about the water supply and set tariffs.
Gordon Luczak, resident of the Alpena municipality, said the litigation in the Alpena-Alpena municipality had been going on too long and if an authority helps put an end to it, he is for it, especially if it means paying the same fees how the city’s residents pays.
Alpena Township adds its own water fees for township customers.
Under one agency, all residential customers would pay the same rate based on their water usage.
“I live two blocks from the people in town and I pay a higher price than they do if I use the same system.” Said Luczak. “It’s stupid.”
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES?
Officials from Alpena and Alpena Township have investigated five Michigan water authorities, including the Huron Shore Regional Utility Authority, which serves customers in the Tawas, East Tawas and Oscoda, AuSable, Alabaster, Baldwin and Greenbush townships.
Annaw Horning, city manager for Tawas, said the agency allows municipalities to have equal control over setting regulations, tariffs, and deciding on capital projects.
Without the authority, Tawas would become a regular customer at Baldwin Township, which owns the water production facility, unless Tawas spent millions of dollars building its own facility, she said.
“That would be expensive and something that is really not possible at the moment.” She said. “We’d rather continue to share resources and be part of the decision-making process.”
Tim Sheridan, superintendent and licensed water company for the Blumfield Reese Water Authority near the Thumb, said the agency sources its water from Saginaw and then sells it to its 1,459 customers. Blumfield Township and Reese Village established the authority in 1968. Denmark Township joined in 1997 and a small portion of Gilford Township came on board in 2015.
Sheridan said an agency was cutting operating costs.
“There is a clear cost advantage as the costs are shared among more customers.” he said. “Instead of each municipality having to bear the cost of its own system and having administrators and accounts for each, one unit oversees a system. The authority is basically a separate municipality. “
Authorities are also helping to complete infrastructure projects more efficiently, Sheridan said.
Rather than having multiple municipalities pay for and maintain their own systems, an agency can identify the infrastructure issues that require attention and allocate the funds raised by selling the water to address them.
“The system is viewed as a whole and not several small systems that are connected to one another.” he said. “You get more for your money and the areas that are most needed are addressed wherever it is.”
When communities work together for whatever reason, forms of trust, relationships improve, and everyone learns more about the other community and their struggles. Horning said this could lead them to collaborate more regularly and share other resources.
She said local government leaders are not always on par but can leave most disagreements behind and work in the best interests of residents.
“It can absolutely improve relationships, but also if you vote on the other side it can have the opposite effect.” She said. “Overall, however, I think that working together and making decisions together has a positive effect and you learn more about the people and their community.”
Horning said that getting everyone on the same page early on will help an agency succeed later.
Most often, one or more municipalities make sacrifices in order to form an authority, such as the transfer of ownership of production and treatment facilities.
The proposed agency between Alpena and Alpena Township could mimic the Huron Shore agency, which would mean the city giving up ownership of its system and rolling it up into the agency. It is not clear that this would happen as no proposal for an authority in the Alpena region has been finalized.
“Some sacrifices have to be made, and then you will have some residents who think they should get more because they are more into authority.” She said. “If you can overcome these early hurdles, it is a fair and efficient way to provide services fairly to everyone.”
Often times, the municipalities in the agency with larger population groups and more infrastructure often receive more investment to maintain the system through these municipalities. According to Horning, educating the public about how water pipes and other infrastructures affect their service will help people overcome the feeling that they are getting less service for the same amount of money.
“Some people will feel changed for a moment” She said. “You need to know that it is a system and what affects one church affects everyone.”
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