By Josh Shepherd, News writer
Representatives from several state organizations worked to channel the anger of Cedarbrook land owners upset over the possible abandonment of the neighborhood sewer plant at the Harrison County Extension Office Tuesday evening.
Harrison County Judge Executive Alex Barnett arranged for the public meeting after Cedarbrook residents discovered that the R.A. Williams Construction Company had filed a request to abandon and cease sewer plant operations with the Kentucky Division of Water (DOW) and the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC).
According to residents, and confirmed by Andrew Melnykovych, PSC Public Information Officer, the R.A. Williams Construction Company, doing business as the Cedarbrook Waster Water Treatment Plant, has been managing the package sewer system as a private business endeavor for about 38 years.
During that time, R.A. Williams had been collecting monthly fees from residents and requesting sewer rate changes with the PSC.
It is also apparent that Ron Osborne, President of the Bex Construction Company, has been trying to transfer managerial duties of the wastewater plant from R.A. Williams to another owner for almost two decades, according to Melnykovych.
According to the Bex Construction Company website, R.A. Williams became a wholly owned subsidiary of Bex in 2010.
In 1997, R.A. Williams filed papers to transfer Cedarbrook management duties to another group of investors, but the request was withdrawn when the deal apparently fell through, Melnykovych said.
In 2008, the PSC rejected a second attempt to transfer the plant to Cedarbrook Utilities, LLC, an operation involving a Lawrence Smither from Crestwood, Kentucky.
The PSC denied the transfer request, Menykovych said, because even though Cedarbrook Utilities had technical expertise, the organization lacked the financial capability of making the necessary improvements and upgrades to the sewer plant.
Following that rejection of the transfer, R.A. Williams submitted a PSC request to raise monthly sewer rates per household at Cedarbrook from $23.55 per month to $62, an increase of 163.23 percent.
Everyone speaking at the public meeting agreed that the residents were paying too much.
The situation came to a head in May 2013 when the DOW sent Osborne a Notice of Violation letter outlining a long list of deficiencies at the Cedarbrook plant.
Contending that R.A. Williams was never meant to operate the facility for this long, that it does not have ownership and that it does not have the capital needed to make the estimated $300,000 in improvements to bring the Cedarbrook plant in compliance, Osborne made a formal request to abandon the facility, Melnykovych said.
Cedarbrook residents reported that they were unaware of any of these developments. If it had not been for resident Danny Tolson investigating why he and several residents had not received a May 2014 bill, residents argued that they would still not know about the abandonment.
However, summarizing the PSC’s procedures when it comes to an abandonment, Melnykovych explained that a hearing would have been scheduled with the customers following a PSC investigation into Osborne’s claims.
“Judge Barnett came in a few steps ahead of us on a public meeting, but considering the circumstances, it’s a good thing he did,” Melnykovych said.
This is the first time in his 12 years with the PSC that a company has submitted an abandonment request for a sewer plant.
“Our goal in the abandonment process is to try and keep the facility serving its customers. Shutting down a sewer service creates a number of health and environmental issues,” Melnykovych said. “To be frank with you all, this is a tough case. But we’re trying to help find an answer.”
Tolson, Will Mallard, and several other residents at Cedarbrook were beginning to ask what can be done to hold R.A. Williams accountable for the past fees that were collected. Many said very little improvements have been done.
Barnett interrupted the questioning and explained that he intentionally did not invite either R.A. Williams or the DOW to the public meeting.
“We don’t need a shouting match. We need solutions,” Barnett said. “They’re not part of the solution.”
To introduce a possible answer, Barnett invited Roger Recktenwald, Director of Research and Planning with the Kentucky Association of Counties, and Gene Thomas, Environmental Director for the WEDCO district health department, to explain how, working with the Harrison County Fiscal Court, Cedarbrook could establish a special sewer district.
Recktenwald and Thomas have extensive experience setting up these districts and pledged themselves to helping Cedarbrook get started.
Creating this district, Recktenwald explained, would make the facility subject to public input.
“Instead of decisions being made about your system in a Lexington office building without your input, these sewer districts are subject to public meeting laws. You sit at the table, review the figures, and set the rates,” Recktenwald said.
“And those rates are not subject to PSC regulations,” Melnykovych added.
A three-member board of Cedarbrook residents would manage the needs of the plant and collect monthly fees for its upkeep, Thomas said.
The process requires approval from the Harrison County Fiscal Court, Recktenwald said, and the judge-executive would appoint the members of the board.
After that, the fiscal court would have no further involvement in the decision-making, he said.
Furthermore, the public sewer district can apply for state and federal grants and low-interest loans that are denied to privately owned utilities.
No county tax money is involved with this type of sewage district, Recktenwald asserted.
Lake Carnico in Nicholas County set up a similar type of sanitation district, Thomas added. He was involved in getting the details of that district underway.
Thomas is also involved in a similar transition with a large trailer park in Scott County.
“It takes time, but it can be done and, if all parties are agreeable, its simple to do and straightforward,” he said,
Bob Casher of the Bluegrass Area Development District outlined some of the major grants that may be available to fund a project to upgrade the existing package sewer plant.
There are a vast number of details that still remain to be done. It’s a process that will take years instead of months, Thomas said.
First on the agenda, though, is the abandonment procedure, Barnett said.
R.A. Williams has several questions it must answer under oath to the PSC and the Kentucky Attorney General’s office about the legitimacy of the claims in its abandonment request.
The answers should be returned to the PSC by June 14, Melnykovych said.
In the meantime, residents were confused about whether they should continue paying their monthly bills. No one would give a direct answer to the question.
However, Barnett advised that failure to pay bills would only add fuel to the company’s argument that it cannot sustain proper maintenance of the treatment facility and allow them to wriggle free of any liability associated with their alleged mismanagement of the service.