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Aqua, Fort Wayne officials cancel hearing amid negotiations

Friday, February 1, 2013 - 9:24 am

City and Aqua Indiana officials have opted not to make public arguments Tuesday on the city's proposed takeover of Aqua's southwest-side water system – a possible sign of progress in closed-door talks.

The two parties already postponed the Jan. 22 City Council hearing where they were initially scheduled to make their opposing cases, saying they had made progress toward a deal to avoid a forced condemnation and court battle over the system. Now, the rescheduled hearing also has been cancelled, Aqua Indiana President Tom Bruns said.

“I think it's a positive turn,” Bruns said Thursday. “I think it probably means we're not going to move forward with the condemnation ordinance, at least anytime soon.”

On Jan. 22, City Utilities Director Kumar Menon said the two sides were meeting almost every day, including weekends. Bruns said this week that the talks had slowed since Jan. 22, although he was encouraged that the two sides agreed not to give public arguments.

Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd, said Thursday that both sides had notified him of progress in their negotiations.

“Representatives from Aqua Indiana and Fort Wayne City Utilities have been in contact to let me know that constructive talks are continuing with both parties as they work toward resolving all issues surrounding the proposed acquisition,” Didier said in a written statement.

“In order that these good faith efforts can proceed without interruption, the presentations to the Fort Wayne City Council by Aqua Indiana and City Utilities will not take place during the Council meeting on Tuesday, February 5th,” the statement said.

In response to messages seeking comment, City Utilities spokesman Frank Suarez issued a written statement Friday morning from Menon.

"As long as constructive discussions continue, a bit of additional time to get things resolved makes sense," Menon said. "We remain optimistic that a resolution of the water service issues in southwest Fort Wayne can be found."

If Aqua and the city fail to settle on terms for a purchase of the company's southwest-side system, council will vote on whether to condemn the system, a move that would allow City Utilities to get an appraisal and make an offer.

If Aqua were to reject the city's offer, the matter would go to the courts, which would set a price for the system – likely triggering a legal battle that could drag on for years. Aqua is still challenging the city on the value of Aqua's former north-side system, which the city acquired in 2008 for nearly $17 million.

Aqua currently serves about 12,000 customers in the Aboite Township area, likely making the southwest system more valuable than its former north-side system, which provided water to about 9,000 customers.

In any case, council would need to give final approval on a purchase.

While Aqua and the city postponed their Jan. 22 presentations, about 20 city residents spoke out during the meeting, with a large majority urging council to move forward with the acquisition.