A billing dispute is fueling efforts by Warren County to end decades of purchasing water from the Village of Waynesville.
Last week, the county commissioners gave staff the go-ahead on the design phase of a $1 million water line project that would replace water from Waynesville’s well field along the Little Miami River used to serve residents of Corwin, Harveysburg and the Caesar Creek Lake area.
At the same time, the commissioners directed water department staff to put together bids pitting Waynesville against a private provider, Western Water, for the county’s business - at least until the new county line has been completed.
The initiatives were approved after the commissioners and Waynesville officials argued over an $83,000 bill the village said it was owed by the county for water purchased over the last two years.
“You realize your contract is up with us and we have another provider?” said Commissioner Dave Young on Tuesday. “You are playing hardball.”
Young’s comments came near the end of a sharp debate with Waynesville council members over the back bill, made after a new billing clerk - researching a $150,000 bill from the county from a water line project - determined the village had been undercharging since the rates were raised in 2015.
This resulted in a 46 percent increase for local customers in Waynesville.
The village decided it was due the difference from Warren County under the existing contract, renewed in 2009 for 10 years, extending a previous 10-year deal.
County officials pointed to a 2015 slide presentation presented by Waynesville Mayor Dave Stubbs indicating the wholesale rate wouldn’t be raised, but village leaders pointed to the contract.
“It says whenever,” Councilwoman Kimberley Kaan said.
After the meeting, Kaan said Waynesville officials, after reviewing a contract had recently sent the county more than $148,000 in repayment for a water line extended down Lytle-Carter Road.
“I think they’ll come to same conclusion we did,” she said.
The county took over Waynesville’s sewer system last year, but the village council voted to hold onto the water system despite concerns about long-term liabilities and the limited potential for growth.
After the meeting, Councilman Richard Elliott - the only no vote on keeping the water system - said the village needed the $83,000 from the county to satisfy Ohio EPA requirements for reserve funds for expansion of the wellfield.
Warren County pays both Springboro and Cincinnati more for wholesale water, Elliott said.
“We can’t have our customers subsidizing county customers,” he said.
Last year, the county bought 46 million gallons, 27 percent of the water pumped from the field, but paid in less than $107,350, 13 percent of $827,995 in total water revenues, according to village financial data.
Young reminded Waynesville officials the county was a big customer. But losing the county’s water business is apparently not a concern for Waynesville.
“We’ve always known they were going to go away,” Elliott said.
And neither he or Kaan indicated the village would bid against Western Water for the next contract.
Instead they said Waynesville would likely focus on existing customers in the village and a service area to the north, while holding onto the water the county would otherwise have purchased for growing demand.
The commissioners delayed a decision on whether to pay the back bill, although all three seemed bent against it.
“I want to honor the contract, but I also don’t want to dishonor the contract,” Commissioner Tom Grossmann, an assistant prosecutor in Hamilton County, said.
Meanwhile the county is expected to hire a designer in June for the water line extension. The county projects an 8-year payback.
In July, Western Water should be set up to serve Corwin, Harveysburg and the lake area - at least until the new line is ready.
Western Water is expected to provide softened water, as opposed to the hard water from Waynesville - when the county disconnects the Waynesvile line feeding Corwin water tower for painting. The county is studying more than $60 million in improvements to go to a softened system.
While the existing contract with Waynesville runs through 2019, Warren County could terminate with a year’s notice, Assistant Warren County Prosecutor Bruce McGary said at the meeting.
“This is a potential net plus for ratepayers,” Commissioner Shannon Jones said, urging Waynesville to consider “how valuable a large customer is to their finances” before pressing forward for the $83,093.
In the long run, Chris Brausch, who runs the county water and sewer department, said a water provider would prefer serving customers itself, rather than through a contract, unless construction costs were too high.
“The county’s exploring all the options,” Brausch said. “I can’t say where it going to fall.”
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