Metro-East News

Should sewer service cost more in some unincorporated areas? Voters will weigh in.

In November, the roughly 27,000 registered voters in St. Clair Township will have an opportunity to weigh in on a question about sewer rates for people in any unincorporated area.

The St. Clair Township Board of Trustees is placing an advisory question on the Nov. 6 ballot regarding whether municipalities should be able to charge more money for sewer service to people who live in unincorporated areas.

The anger from the township dates back to when the village of Swansea began charging residents in unincorporated areas 1.3 times more for wastewater treatment than it did for residents who lived within the municipality.

State law allows the practice as long as it’s reasonable.

On the ballot, St. Clair Township voters will see this question: “Should the Illinois General Assembly pass legislation to prevent municipalities from charging higher sewer rates to customers living in unincorporated areas than they do customers living within municipal boundaries?”

“I’m hoping to accomplish, if people speak out, that the law could possibly get brought up and changed,” said Dave Barnes, the township supervisor.

Barnes said Swansea wanted to charge unincorporated sewer customers 1.5 times more than those who lived in the village, but the township was able to get it negotiated down to 1.3 times higher.

“They could have charged anything they wanted,” Barnes said.

Barnes said the some residents’ wastewater goes through St. Clair Township lines and lift stations, but then is routed to the Swansea wastewater treatment plant. He doesn’t know why some of the township’s residents have their wastewater routed to the Swansea plant as opposed to the township wastewater plant. The decision was made before he was supervisor.

However the ability to charge more is what the township is objecting to.

“It’s something that I believe is totally unfair, for people in the unincorporated areas, not only in St. Clair Township, but all over the state of Illinois,” Barnes said. “It’s happening to them also. The only way to get that changed is to have the law changed. So let’s put something on the ballot and see what the people think.”

The move may be for nothing more than political gain, according to Swansea’s village attorney.

John Kurowski, the lawyer for Swansea, said the question is only coming up “because they got heat over the Swansea thing (and) they’re looking for cover.”

Kuroswski called the referendum effort, albeit advisory, “hypocritical.”

“It’s sort of giving us the finger. It’s outrageous,” Kurowski said. “They agreed to this rate, they agreed to the structure. They collected all the money. Now they’re trying to say change the law, which has been in effect for decades.”

Kurowski said the township has been accumulating money in its sewer fund for several years, and began doing so before the present administration, as a way of preparing to help pay for the expanded Swansea sewer plant.

The higher rate was to help pay for a $22 million expansion of the village’s wasterwater treatment plant.

According to township minutes in November 2011, the St. Clair Township Board agreed to place $363,000 into an escrow account to help pay the Swansea expansion.

A Swansea sewer reserve fund eventually reached $723,000, but has since been zeroed out and moved to the general sewer fund, Kurowski said.

The township’s sewer fund balance increased from $1.6 million in April 2009 to $5.1 million in April 2017.

Barnes said complaints from the village about the township’s fund balance is just resentment on the village’s part.

“It sounds like sour grapes to me that they cannot be as good at managing finances as we can,” Barnes said. “We don’t have to answer to Swansea as to what we do with our money.”

Barnes said he wasn’t aware of an escrow account, even though he voted to set aside money into it in November 2011.

Barnes said he didn’t know the purpose of the reserve account and referred questions to former supervisor Tim Buchanan.

“As far as I know there was never an escrow account set up,” Barnes said. “I guess the bigger question from me to Swansea, which we have asked them, we have been paying into a replacement fund ever since the contract. Where is that money going?”

Kurowski said questions of the sewer replacement fund have previously been settled and released in the agreement from several years ago.

“We were confident we accounted for the costs,” Kurowski said.

“We gave up trying to get money for the plant in exchange for the (multiplier),” Kurowski said.

There are township board minutes where members discuss the need for increasing rates for township residents to help pay for future costs of the Swansea plant including an expansion of the village’s plant.

“The township residents paid twice for the same service because when they entered into the contract, they never made any effort to refund the money or workout some other financial deal using that money with Swansea. They kept it,” Kurowski said.

The township has sewer service split up with some customers going to Belleville and some served by the township. They pay 1.5 times the city rate for those who go to Belleville.

“They don’t have to build a plant. They can’t service (the customers) with their old rickety beat up plant. We think they should contribute the capacity or a third, and they did that,” Kurowski said. “There’s an historic basis for that. They didn’t have a problem with it. The reason it changed was political … the leadership in 2009, they thought they knew better.”

State law allows for municipalities to charge a higher rate for people outside of a municipality for sewer service.

“The public policy is logical,” Kurowski said. “They’re not contributing to that unit of local government which had to appropriate its funds from its taxpayers to provide that service.”

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, in a brief interview, said he believes the sewer rates should be equitable.

“I’m going to have to look at state law. I understand what happened a few years ago, and at the time I was not in favor of that. I’m still not,” Hoffman said. “I’m going to be voting on the referendum, and I’m going to be voting for it.”

Doug Jameson, a local real estate agent and GOP nominee in the 113th House district, said in a news release it is unfair for someone to pay 30 percent more for sewer service than someone who may live across the street, but happens to be within the incorporated boundaries.

“I am an ardent supporter of capitalism and believe government intervention in free markets should be kept to a minimum,” Jameson said. “In this case, however, it is frustrating to learn that local, municipal governments charge citizens significantly higher prices for a sewer service just because they live on the opposite side of an invisible boundary line.”