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Sprinkler system fee sparks battle in Bargersville

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Three years ago, a Center Grove area man disconnected his in-ground sprinkler system in silent protest of a $10 fee being charged on his water bill just because he had it.

But now, John Jefferson is tired of dragging hoses around to water his yard. He has gone to a town council meeting to ask Bargersville officials to drop the fee that he says is a unjustifiable tax by the town.

The town created the fee in 1995 to discourage people from installing and using sprinkler systems because Bargersville Water Utility couldn't supply enough water during droughts or high-use periods in summer, Bargersville Town Manager Kevin McGinnis said.

The town's water utility serves about 13,000 households and businesses in much of the Center Grove area, reaching as far north as Smith Valley Road. About 2,000 customers pay the fee, generating $240,000 annually, Bargersville utilities superintendent Kevin Killinger told the Daily Journal.

But now that the town has added a new water treatment plant to relieve those supply problems, the fee that Jefferson said never made sense makes even less sense now, he said.

Bargersville plans to review all of its water rates and fees, including the sprinkler fee, in the spring after the new plant has operated for about a year, Town Council President Rowana Umbarger said.

That means residents in Bargersville and White River Township will continue paying the fee, even during the winter months when no one is using a sprinkler. Homeowners may not even know they're paying the monthly fee, since water bills from Bargersville don't itemize all of the taxes and fees, Jefferson said.

The water utility serves a general area bounded by State Road 37 to the west, Honey Creek Road to the east, the town limit to the south and Smith Valley Road to the north.

Jefferson paid about $5,000 to have the sprinkler system installed when he built his house in Brentridge Estates near Center Grove High School in 1998. But three years ago, when he noticed the $10 monthly charge on his bill, which used to be itemized, he contacted the town about it.

The utilities manager at the time told him the fee was to discourage homeowners from having and using in-ground sprinklers, because the water utility often had problems keeping up with demand during dry periods, Jefferson said.

But homeowners pay for every drop of water they use, whether it's from flushing a toilet, using the dishwasher, watering grass with a hose or using a sprinkler system, Jefferson said. Sprinkler systems cost the town nothing more than a person with a portable sprinkler hooked up to a hose, he said.

The town's new $20 million water plant also came online earlier this year and doubled the amount of available water the utility could offer. Since the new plant should solve summer supply problems, the original reasoning for the sprinkler charge is no longer valid, Jefferson said.

"There are some charges that can be justified and some that can't be justified. It costs Bargersville water company absolutely nothing. It's all profit, it goes right to the bottom line," Jefferson said.

The fee is charged year-round, meaning homeowners are paying $10 per month even if there is six inches of snow on the ground in the middle of winter.

Town employees don't inspect or monitor the in-ground systems. Property owners with in-ground systems are supposed to have a test done each year to make sure no back-flow is moving into the public water pipe. When the report is submitted to the town, the billing clerk adds the sprinkler fee to the resident's account, McGinnis said.

Jefferson spoke to town council members this summer to ask that it be eliminated but was told the town would consider it next year.

The town council plans to review all of its water charges around March, including usage rates, meter fees, hydrant charges and miscellaneous fees, such as the sprinkler charge, Umbarger said. If the town is going to change rates or fees, Umbarger said she prefers they're all done at the same time.

The town increased water rates by 77 percent in 2010 in order to pay for the new water plant. The study that will be done at the end of the year will allow town officials to decide whether they could lower rates if the town is saving money on operating costs because of the new plant, McGinnis said.

"The old plant up at Smith Valley was really getting taxed in its capabilities. Now that we are re-allocating through our connecting pipes and switching the system back and forth, we should be getting some economies of scale by not having as much overtime at the old plant," he said.

Umbarger wouldn't say whether she thinks the fee should be kept or eliminated but said she and other council members have heard complaints before and will review it.

"We are well aware of the concerns of our customers, and we want to do everything we can to have fair and equitable fees and not appear to be overcharging. And we plan on really looking at that and the cost of service," she said.

Indiana American Water, which supplies Greenwood, New Whiteland, Whiteland and Franklin, doesn't charge extra for customers with sprinkler systems, external affairs manager Joe Loughmiller said.

The company also has itemized billing, so customers can see each part of their monthly charge including usage charges, meter fees, taxes and fire protection and hydrant charges, he said.

Bargersville used to send itemized bills, but the town changed its billing software a few years ago. Umbarger said she wasn't sure whether the current billing system could itemize those bills, and it's another issue the town council can review.

Jefferson was disappointed to hear the town wouldn't consider dropping the sprinkler fee until March, which will cost individual residents another $80 by then and generate another $160,000 for the town. But he's hopeful council members will cut the fee he feels is now outdated.

"These temporary charges are a lot like temporary taxes. They have a tendency of becoming permanent," he said.

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  • Highway robbery without this fee
    I live in Center Grove and pay Bargersville for my water/sewer. Even without this $10 per month in-ground sprinkler fee, the rates are quite a gouge. I do not routinely water my yard nor do I have a pool. My last bill was $176. On top of this, Johnson County REMC rates for electricity for out of control. Center Grovers pay way too much for basic utilities. Someone needs to audit this mess.
  • Criminal Behavior
    Theft. Plain and simple. Prosecute these bozos.
  • Help me out here.
    Help me out with this logic. A charge was added to discourage a practice which put pressure on the system that the system could not handle. Forget about the fact that the system has been upgraded. How can you dissuade folks from doing something with a charge that is not itemized? It sounds to me like one of the local law firms will be filing a class action suit shortly.

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