City, township getting set for trial over water rates

ALPENA — The litigation between the City of Alpena and Alpena Township will head to trial soon over water and sewer rates.

The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 30 and last until Nov.3 in front of 26th Circuit Court Judge Michael Mack.

The litigation stems from when the city raised rates on its customers including the township 3 1/2 years ago.

The township protested the increased rates, claiming it was a wholesale customer and balked at paying the new fees and instead continued to pay the prior ones.

The city filed suit against the township to collect the past due balance.There have been several bargaining sessions, including one with a mediator, to reach a deal to avoid trial but talks fell apart setting the stage for the trial.

Township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe, who was elected to replace former Supervisor Marie Twite while the litigation was ongoing, said a lot of time has passed since the dispute began, in addition to a lot of money being spent. He said he is hopeful the trial, and subsequent negotiations, will result in a deal that is fair to both sides and all of the residents.

“It’s been a long time coming and we need to start moving in a progressive manner sooner rather than later,” Skibbe said. “Even with the trial the township and city are going to have to work together to work something out.”

Mack may set a rate for the water and sewer but not a methodology for it. He could rule to determine the current rates are fair and reasonable. He also will rule on how much money the township owes the city, or if it owes any at all.

City Manager Greg Sundin said the trial and Mack’s ruling will be only another part of the process, which includes both parties agreeing on a way to calculate rates agreeable to each party.

“We know that whatever comes out of the court is only the beginning and not the end,” Sundin said. “We still have to sit down face to face and get a contract done. The trial could give us a basis in which to work and we could work with that.”

Skibbe said he has been working hard to improve the relationship with city officials and progress is being made. He said he hopes that can carry over into negotiations.

“We have been rebuilding our lines of communication, which I believe is always a step in the right direction,” he said.

Sundin said the quicker a deal can be reached after the trial the better. He said both sides have spend a lot of money on legal fees and as the trial nears the cost is climbing more quickly. He said the city, however, won’t enter into a deal that is unfair for its residents, or maintain the water and sewer system adequately.

“Our responsibility, at least on our end, is the long-term sustainability of the systems,” he said. “This isn’t something that we will just settle just to have an agreement. If we don’t have long-term sustainability, not only does it impact the city but the township as well.”

In order to be sure it had enough money set aside to cover the past due balance of the water and sewer bill and attorney fees, the township raised rates on its customers. Skibbe was not in office when the increase was made but he said finding a resolution that will help alleviate the financial hardship of township residents is critical.

“That has been pretty much my top priority, because it is an economic burden on people,” he said. “We have been getting great support from the people, but it comes at a cost that is great for some to bear.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews.