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‘Ludicrous:’ American Suburban’s 69% sewer rate hike blasted by customers
Plus, a few RealReal takeaways from Purdue grad Julie Wainwright’s conversation with Mitch Daniels. How to get that second COVID booster. And the pain coming on Indiana 38 work in Dayton
Today’s edition of the Based in Lafayette reporting project is sponsored by the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement at Purdue. The Center for C-SPAN Conversation with Brian Lamb will feature a conversation with Howard Holzer, Lincoln historian and author, at 6 p.m. April 6 at Purdue. For more, scroll through today’s edition.
69% SEWER RATE PROPOSAL GETS ROASTED
In Steve Artz’s garage in Lindberg Village, just outside West Lafayette, he has a huge cardboard sign on the floor that he says has gathered sawdust and paint over the past six years, since the last time American Suburban Utilities looked to raise sewage rates.
The sign, once posted at the entrance of the neighborhood, outlined a 2016 rate increase proposal that would have pushed monthly bills from $47 to $85 and encouraged state regulators to “Stop American Suburban Utilities.” That time, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission wound up approving an increase to $64.82 a month, later reduced in 2021 to $59.08 when the state agency determined customers were due a refund because of overcharges.
On Wednesday night, during an Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor field hearing on a new proposed rate increase of 69%, Artz asked state officials where the millions of dollars went last time, amid questions about whether the plant met regulations and prospects of some of the highest sewage rates in the state.
“All of us, the decent folks here, will be left holding the bag,” Artz said, testifying in a crowd of nearly 100 people in the Battle Ground Middle School gym.
American Suburban’s new rate request, initiated in November 2021, was raked over the coals during a hearing that ran for an hour-and-a-half.
American Suburban Utilities, which serves the outskirts of West Lafayette, filed for a sewer rate increase that would raise a flat monthly residential rate from $59.08 to $99.66. That’s roughly 69%.
For comparison, the West Lafayette City Council agreed early this year to raise rates from $40.47 a month for residential customers using 5,000 gallons to $48.60 a month by 2026. That’s a 20% increase. The city justified the increase by putting it toward a $13.9 million combined sewer overflow project expected to start this year.
Wednesday’s hearing was part of the work the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor is doing, as it prepares to respond to American Suburban’s request. The state officials weren’t there to answer points raised during Wednesday night’s testimony. Instead, customer comments would be included with petitions and letters already piling up against the proposal ahead of the OUCC’s recommendations, expected April 5.
The IURC is scheduled to hold a hearing on American Suburban’s request June 2, with an order expected in the summer, according to a timeline shared Wednesday.
The comments, many technical and filled with fairly fresh memories of the last fight against rate increases in 2016, took it to American Suburban much of the night.
“This is ridiculous,” Fred Bruner, a resident of Harrison Highlands neighborhood, said. “Is this going to happen every five years, where we go on top of what this is? Eventually, we’re going to be, what, $200 a month just to use our toilets? A little bit of an increase I could understand. But 69%? Give us a break.”
Bruner asked about Scott Lods, American Suburban’s owner, and whether he was even there.
A room of fingers pointed to the back of the gym, where Lods sat with a small group, listening.
Lods did not testify. His attorney from Barnes and Thornburg, an Indianapolis firm, attended, too.
Afterward, Lods said he didn’t plan to comment on the request until it was finalized. (Lods told WLFI in January that the proposal stemmed from millions of dollars spent in recent capital improvements.)
Lods also declined to address what customers said that night about his management of the utility, complaints about poor online payment options, questions about why swift residential and commercial growth in Wabash Township wasn’t enough to cover larger margins, or about claims that the rate proposal was an attempt to siphon cash for private gain.
“It seems to be part of his strategy,” Tom Fackelman, a resident of Hawthorne Ridge neighborhood, about Lods’ steep requests.
“He’s shooting for the next galaxy,” Fackelman said. “But he’s hoping to make it into orbit.”
Debra Sherman, part of the Moss Creek Homeowners’ Association, made a case that American Suburban had been fined by the state after getting approval to expand its Carriage Estates Wastewater Treatment plant in 2014 to treat 4 million gallons a day, but building it to handle 6 million gallons a day. But the state gave American Suburban an as-built permit along with the fine. She said American Suburban have been expected to pick up the tab for an unauthorized expansion meant to accommodate growth later.
“The owner of ASU has more than 20 years’ worth of experience in the rules and regulations of wastewater treatment to get it right, yet continues to disregard our community and (Indiana Department of Environmental Management) by acting with impunity doing exactly what he wants, getting a slap on the hand and fined, after which he promises to do better,” Janet Yaninek, Moss Creek HOA secretary, wrote in written given to the state officials Wednesday night.
Sherman encouraged the IURC to consider that the last phased-in rate increase wasn’t fully in place.
“It’s ludicrous,” Sherman said.
Written comments were still being accepted by Friday, April 1: By email, email@example.com; on the web, www.in.gov/oucc/2361.htm; or by mail at: Public Comments, Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor, 115 W. Washington St., Suite 1500 South, Indianapolis, IN, 46204.
For more about the rate increase request and to comment on it, here’s a page set up by the Office of Utility Consumer Counselor.
Based on the subtle fashion statements worn to see Purdue grad Julie Wainwright’s conversation with Purdue President Mitch Daniels, Tuesday night’s crowd in Fowler Hall was definitely The RealReal CEO’s target audience.
Daniels admitted needing help defining fast fashion, mainly as a set for Wainwright to dismiss the trend for cheap imitations as “a real blight” on the industry and fodder for landfills. But he didn’t spare praise for Wainwright, lauded on Wall Street as one of 33 women, so far, to take their companies through an initial public offering. In this case, it was based on a concept of high-end rather than cheap, made well enough that it can be resold and recirculated.
Here were a few takeaways from the hourlong Q&A:
Failing, to get ahead: A lot of what’s written about Wainwright is about “failing forward,” given the early entry into the internet delivery game in 1998 as pets.com CEO and the way the e-tailer went belly-up in 2000 when the late-‘90s dot-com bubble burst. She let on that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be at the time. Having such a public, catastrophic failure, she said, “did not help my career.” “Everyone was talking about pets.com, and that little puppet (on the company’s commercials) became, really, the symbol of dot-com excess,” she said. Wainwright said that when she looked in 2011 to launch The RealReal, a secondhand resale concept for high-end brands along the lines of Chanel and Louis Vuitton, she understood that roughly 2% of funding in Silicon Valley wound up aimed at companies led by women, particularly one led by a woman at age 50. And that “although they say they embrace failure, really no one likes to lose money.” She said she knew it was going to be hard. The advantage: “I had no fear. … That was the gift of that failure. Especially, I think, being so public. It wasn’t like my private failure. It was a thing discussed at cocktail parties – ones I was at.”
In your closet: Part of $200B in trapped value?: The RealReal, with warehouses and high-end resale showrooms across the country, went public in 2021. Daniels asked how long Wainwright thought it would be before exploring another concept, maybe to disrupt some other market. Wainwright said she figured the model she had, given adequate innovation along the way, could go another 20 years, even if high-end brands tried to siphon back the resale business on their own goods. “Everyone’s probably going to try and do it themselves,” Wainwright said. “And that’s OK, too, because it’s hard. And we’ll win.” As for the 20-year duration prediction, Wainwright said that’s based on “the value trapped” in people’s homes and consumers waking up to paying value prices for quality fashion and the chance that others won’t pick something similar off the rack. “It’s a huge untapped market,” Wainwright said. “There’s about $200 billion worth of trapped products in people’s homes now. That’s just in the U.S. (That’s) products that are five years or older in their home that they are not recirculating. A $200 billion opportunity right there. … So, I’d say we probably have a 20-year run. And by then, I’ll be really old and someone else can figure it out.”
What would she do differently on campus if she was back at Purdue as a student?: A student asked her about that. Wainwright gushed about the case studies and business owner visits she experienced in the late management professor Arnie Cooper’s entrepreneurship courses at Purdue. “It was the best class ever,” Wainwright said. She encouraged students to take courses that emphasized collaboration and active problem solving, to replicate what they’d find when they’re negotiating business later. And she told the student that even if it was something small, to start a business now. “It’s a lot different when you start it yourself,” she said. “I would do it sooner rather than later, because it’s really rewarding. And you won’t have a big public failure like I did.”
SECOND BOOSTERS AVAILABLE, STARTING THURSDAY: The Indiana State Department of Health on Wednesday gave clinics across the state the go-ahead to offer second COVID-19 booster shots for people over 50 or those age 12 and older who have weakened immune systems. That followed authorization Tuesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for second boosters of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. People must be four months removed from having their first booster to get the second, according to the state health department.
Amanda Balser, with the Tippecanoe County Health Department, said the second boosters will be available Thursday at the county’s vaccine clinic, 1950 S. 18th St.
The clinic is open noon-5 p.m. Thursday. It also is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday. Balser said those looking for the free, second booster should bring their vaccination card, ID and insurance card for those with insurance.
DETOUR ALERT, THE DAYTON VERSION: Getting to the east side of Tippecanoe County is going to be a bear for a while. On Friday, the Indiana Department of Transportation plans to close Indiana 38, from Conjunction Street to just west of the access to Adams Road. The $1.5 million project to replace pavement, install storm sewers and new sidewalks will last until mid-November, according to INDOT.
The project comes as the county works on Haggerty Lane/County Road 200 South, just north of Dayton. The project has the east-west route closed at Wildcat Creek for a bridge replacement.
Debbie Calder, INDOT communications director, said INDOT was aware of the county’s bridge project on County Road 200 South.
“It is very unfortunate that these two projects coincide,” Calder said. “Both our Dayton project and Tippecanoe County’s bridge opened for bids last year, but utilities needed to relocate before work could begin on either one.”
The official INDOT detour for the Indiana 38 project, all on state-maintained roads, is a whopper: U.S. 421 to Indiana 26 to Interstate 65 to Indiana 38. The unofficial detour uses County Road 900 East instead of U.S. 421. Your mileage/short cuts may vary.
Thanks to the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement for sponsoring today’s edition. On Wednesday, April 6, Lafayette native and C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb will host Harold Holzer, author of “The Presidents vs. the Press: The Endless Battle Between the White House and the Media – from Founding Fathers to Fake News.” See more details below.
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