A grassroots uprising has halted a controversial water project in rural Montgomery County, and is on track to destroy the government body that initiated it.
Some residents hope the fate of the Valley View Water and Sewer District is a first step in reforming how unelected water boards can mandate charges of tens of thousands of dollars on property owners without a public vote.
But first, residents of Jackson and German townships may be on the hook for nearly $500,000 the water board borrowed and spent without breaking ground on anything. This includes $325,508 spent on legal fees, $116,705 spent on engineering and $5,067 paid to a fiscal officer.
The water board’s attorney, Columbus-based firm Albers and Albers, has resigned. So has fiscal officer John Faulkner. Now the board has only $3,160 on hand and can’t find an attorney to advise it on how to disband or discharge its debt.
At the water board’s meeting last week, board members worried that they may be forced to assess residents in the water district — which covers parts of German and Jackson townships that aren’t currently served with municipal water — for the cost of the debt, most of which was borrowed from First National Bank of Germantown at a 2.5 percent interest rate that continues to accrue.
“We can’t do anything until we have legal advice,” said water board chairman Ben DeGroat, who also is a German Twp. trustee.
DeGroat pleaded with the dozens of assembled residents to help him find an attorney who would work for next to nothing.
They Valley View Water and Sewer District is one of roughly 90 regional water and sewer districts, known as “6119 districts” because of the law that created them.
‘Packing the building’
The water district’s money was spent planning a water line to 98 lots on Eby Road in German Twp. near the Butler County line. It was to be the water board’s first project.
But Eby Road homeowners revolted this spring when they received notices that they would have to pay an average of $15,000 each. They organized in opposition, showing up en masse to public meetings.
“We were packing the building. They finally had to go to the gymnasium, and we were packing in there. They knew they couldn’t put up with the pressure anymore,” said Gene Hosler of German Twp., who received a notice the project would cost him $17,632.
Hosler said the water line wasn’t needed. But more than that, he said people were infuriated that an unelected board could do this without letting citizens vote on it. And some worried it was an effort to force development on the rural area.
The peculiar bylaws of the water board allowed the board members to appoint each other if township trustees didn’t fill empty slots. Most of the self-appointed volunteer water board members resigned in the wake of opposition to the Eby Road project and were replaced by DeGroat and others who pledge to dissolve the water district.
Water district opponents have since taken the fight to the Ohio General Assembly. They met recently with Ohio Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, with concerns about unelected boards levying huge assessments without public support.
“I think we need to look at whether the laws governing the creation of these are adequate,” Lehner said. “There seem to be loopholes.”
She noted that most public works projects are not publicly voted on, but she had concerns with a self-appointing board.
John Albers, the district’s attorney, resigned in May as the project’s demise and the lack of funding became apparent. He is a board member of the Coalition of Ohio Regional Districts and has set up roughly 40 water boards.
He said the costs his law firm incurred are customary.
“When you create a district you’re creating a whole new political subdivision, so you have a whole myriad of requirements and laws you have to comply with,” he said.
But the collapse of the Valley View district, he said, “is really unusual.” And he said there is no need to change the laws governing water boards.
“I think you’d find most districts function pretty well and the people serviced by them are pretty happy with the service they’re getting,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any fundamental flaw with the way districts are done.
“I think the problem here is it was a tough project and was on the expensive side, but we thought was a very good project. Some people disagreed with that, so there we are.”
Now the townships are awash in uncertainty. Board members at last week’s meeting had few answers for questions shouted from assembled residents about whether the board can declare bankruptcy, or get help from the state, or sell itself to another water district.
One of the few things the board was clear on was that the Eby Road project was dead.
“Water will not be forced down anybody’s throat,” DeGroat said. “Nobody wants to be a part of it.”
But some township residents said they still need water, and want to know who will help them get it if the board is dissolved.
“Eby Road does need water, but it needs it at a fair price,” said Ron Boyer, a farmer on Eby Road.
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