Residents who are displeased with the St. Clair Township-Swansea Sewer Services Contract confronted the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees at its Tuesday night meeting armed with questions that they believe have so far been left unanswered.
St. Clair County Board member Bob Trentman, who resigned from the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees in 2012, said he made a request Thursday afternoon to be put on the meeting agenda and that request was denied. St. Clair Township Supervisor Dave Barnes said that was “because we have public comments” built into the meeting each week.
“The reason they don’t want us on the agenda is so they don’t have to answer questions,” Trentman said.
Ten minutes before the meeting started, the designated meeting room reached its maximum occupancy of 76 people, and the doors were locked. People who spoke during public comments were chosen, given roughly two minutes to address the board, and board members could choose to respond or not.
Some of the township residents’ questions involve:
•The money the township set aside to pay Swansea.
The township board agreed at the Oct. 11, 2011, regular township meeting to set aside money for “the Swansea sewer escrow in a separate account,” according to meeting minutes.
Barnes said in an emailed statement that the township does not have money in “any escrow account.”
At the Oct. 23, 2012, regular township meeting, former Township Supervisor Tim Buchanan said $700,000 had been set aside “to pay Swansea once the sewer negotiations are settled,” according to the minutes.
In the Treasurer’s Report that was approved at the Tuesday meeting, a “Swansea reserve account” was listed as having $726,720 currently sitting in it.
Barnes explained that money was set aside to pay Swansea at the end of sewer service negotiations, but then the language of the contract did not require that the township pay Swansea anything. Barnes said that money would be used to fund maintenance or it would be used for future unanticipated needs.
Residents asked how the money could be used for maintenance now if it was originally set aside to be used for a different purpose.
“It may have been misappropriated,” Barnes said.
Township Board Trustee Greg Hipskind said at the town hall meeting at Whiteside Middle School in early February, Barnes said that account did not exist when residents asked about it.
Barnes said he meant “it doesn’t exist as a reserve.”
Barnes also added “it was never put into an escrow account.” There was some dispute over this with Hipskind, who said he “would bet his house on it” that it was an escrow account up until 2013. He asked Barnes to clarify that by the next board meeting.
•The transport fee.
Under the contract signed last summer by the township and village boards, township residents whose waste water is treated by the Swansea sewer plant — about 3,200 accounts — will see their sewer rates increase by an average of $30.50 every two months.
Swansea has mandated that non-residents pay 1.3 times the rate that residents pay, which is not uncommon among local municipalities. Belleville, for example, charges non-residents 1.5 times the rate residents pay for waste water treatment. Attorneys for both the township and village agree that it is within Swansea’s legal rights to charge customers who live outside city limits more than city residents.
Affected township residents will also see a new $14.68 fee — the $7.34 monthly transport fee — on their bills on top of the rate increase.
The village, which will take over billing of the 3,200 accounts, will send that money to the township to fund the maintenance of the sewer lines that transport waste water from the township to the Swansea plant.
The township is required to maintain the lines under the contract. Currently, a maintenance fee like this is already factored in to residents’ bills under the township.
Village Board Trustee Susan Schultz said if township residents want to make a change to their bills, they should start with the transport fee because it is controlled by the township. If the township agreed to make this rate zero, Schultz said the board would not charge residents anything.
The contract requires the township to evaluate that fee annually to determine if it needs to be increased or decreased.
Township Board Trustee Jaynie Wells said the transport fee was included in the contract “at your (Barnes’) request.”
“This is the result of one man negotiating,” she said.
Hipskind said when Barnes says “we negotiated,” “he means him and his attorney.”
Wells said Barnes has previously told the board that “he can negotiate anything without board approval.”
Barnes agreed that’s true. He said he needs board approval for contracts.
Wells said decisions are made by one person: Barnes.
“There’s no decision to be made. There’s a vote to be made — you’ve made the decision,” Wells said.
Barnes said one possibility that could be brought before the board to get rid of the transport fee would be to try to sell the sewer lines to the village so the township would not be responsible for maintenance.
“If Swansea wants to buy these lines, they can do whatever they want with them,” Barnes said.
•Where to go from here.
A group of about five displeased residents, including John “Skip” Kernan, resident and township highway commissioner, are still in talks with an attorney about the possibility of a class action lawsuit against the township or some other form of recourse. The attorney’s name hasn’t been released by the residents.
Barnes said the board could discuss the possibility of reopening negotiations with Swansea and would “possibly take a vote on it at the next meeting.”
Barnes and Township Board Trustee Mary Carroll both said during the meeting that they would be open to renegotiating with Swansea.
Village Board Trustee Brian Wells and Schultz have said publicly they would not be willing to reopen negotiations.
Former Township Supervisor Buchanan was in attendance at the meeting. He said, speaking as a Swansea resident, charging township residents more is not fair and that the rates charged to township residents should not be related to the rates charged to village residents.
“The rates that Swansea pays, pays for sewer water treatment, sewer lines and lift stations that you don’t use,” he said. “These people shouldn’t be paying anything but treatment.”
Schultz said Swansea residents have been facing higher rates to cover some costs resulting from the Swansea plant expansion that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency mandated in 2008. That expansion was necessary because of population growth within the areas the plant serves, including the township.
Township residents’ rates did not increase during this time because a cost-sharing agreement for the expansion could not be reached between the township and the village. Negotiations went on for about six years before this new 25-year contract was approved.
•The current negotiations with Belleville
. St. Clair Township is in talks with Belleville regarding the potential increase of more than 2,000 township residents’ sewer rates because their waste water is treated by the Belleville sewage plant.
Barnes said during the meeting that the latest proposal was sent in a Dec. 11 letter to Belleville asking that the city bill a flat fee based on water usage, that the township continue billing customers and that the transport fee be waived for these customers. He said the township was waiting for Belleville to respond.
Belleville master sewer committee meeting minutes from Jan. 5, however, state that the township board requested that Belleville bill these township residents.
“This board hasn’t requested anything,” Jaynie Wells said. “I go out to the Belleville Board minutes to find out what we’re doing.”
Barnes said negotiations are still in their “infancy.”
“We still have a long ways to go with that contract,” he said.