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Letter To The Editor - Sewer Project

 

Robert Fiedler

A landowner on

Shipshewana Lake

 

To the Editor:

Usually I write about the Shipshewana West sewer project, but this time it’s a different chapter in the saga of LaGrange County Regional Utility District – the billing issues with Camp Potawatomi in Region B. I’ve only been a bystander watching from a distance and I must say it’s so fascinating how the “official” story has morphed so much since it first came out in December.

I happened to be at the LCRUD special board meeting on Dec. 6, 2011 where the issue apparently first surfaced. I was miffed as the meeting wasn’t about what a third party had suggested, but sat through it anyway. The Dec. 9, 2011 article in your paper about that meeting was pretty accurate in reporting that LCRUD’s counsel, who did most of the talking, mentioned that the camp had been billed since its inception at a rate which incorporated a formula where no one could remember what the formula was. I did hear him say that for all the years the rate was charged, “no one complained” and that the rate being charged had not been reviewed since its inception. The first thought that crossed my mind was “That must have been one really sweetheart of a deal.” In any event, the only issue about the camp at that meeting was that no one knew the “formula” in their rate, not the discovery of any previously hidden deal or unconnected buildings, and it sure seemed as if at least one person at that meeting had been aware of the unique formula aspect of the camp’s billing for quite a while. I still don’t know why anyone would need to understand a special formula, as LCRUD has rate ordinances and I’d think a user would be billed only in accordance with those ordinances. I was intrigued when counsel stated, “One theory is that the camp averaged its summer occupancy out over 12 months and is billed on that calculation.” I didn’t think there was any such provision in code or ordinances that would have permitted that averaging in a flat rate billing scheme.

Since then I have read about the camp’s billing issues in your paper and have been to several monthly board meetings where these issues were discussed in detail. The board has talked about a “special deal,” questioned whether the billing arrangement had ever been approved by the board, has very sparingly released details in the meetings I attended, and seemingly now takes credit for “discovering” the issues at hand. How long should it take to discover the 500-pound gorilla in your living room? Does 12 years seem like a reasonable answer? In one meeting, the outside legal counsel made a statement that in his opinion the camp in Region B (Potawatomi) was in fact currently being billed in a way that was never approved by the LCRUD Board of Trustees.

There are levels of management in LCRUD. There is a Board of Trustees, an Operations Department and an Administration Department. Beyond that, the district has an outside rate consultant and outside legal counsel, and I would think both should have had some input or oversight to ensure that the rates actually charged to users complied with LCRUD’s ordinances and that no special deals were cut. Apparently all those resources still weren’t enough to detect or correct this problem for 12 or so years, even though it involved a large and important user. That tells me that there was a systematic failure at all levels.

In the July 11 board meeting, Mr. Sutter put forth his idea that this problem was “undetected” by previous boards because they were unstable, and that those prior boards were unstable as members changed often due to questions and criticism. If I buy into that ridiculous statement as an excuse for the board, then how do you explain why the other areas of management and other available resources also failed to detect or disclose the problem earlier? After all, I would expect that in the apparent absence of board reviews of the records, the board should most likely have learned of this problem from a “bottom up” flow of information from the everyday ”hands on” people. Are policies and a culture in place to encourage such a flow of information or is it discouraged?

The concluding observation I have is that it sure looks to me that had the manager of one of the camps at Shipshewana Lake not inquired about the rate proposed to be charged to his camp, the Camp Potawatomi underbilling and unconnected structures would probably still be undetected or undisclosed as I write this. I also want your readers to understand that I have no issues with the camp or its management, and am only making observations on how their sewer billing issues came to be recognized and discussed by the board of LCRUD. My main concern in this is that there are camps in our area and I don’t want the same issue to arise here.