County and Village of Ottawa officials discuss the water and sewer districts at an earlier meeting held on Dec. 6, 2018 - Putnam Sentinel
County and Village of Ottawa officials discuss the water and sewer districts at an earlier meeting held on Dec. 6, 2018. (file photo)

PUTNAM COUNTY — As of Jan. 1, 2019, the county run water system referred to as ‘Putnam-East’ stands in violation of Ohio EPA regulations. There is no problem with the water itself. At issue is who, specifically, is the ‘Operator of Record’ - the person responsible for the quality of the water as well as the pipes that carry it into the homes of ratepayers.

Beginning on the first day of this new year, and still today, ‘Putnam-East’ has no Operator of Record. Should anything occur within the system that might require emergency repair, it is unclear exactly who might respond.

“We just got this,” the now-former County Administrator Jackson Betscher said during a Dec. 27 meeting between the county commissioners and officials with the Village of Ottawa. “I mean, not that our backs are against the wall, but our backs are against the wall.”

The ‘this’ that Betscher referred to was a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between the county and village. Had it been signed by elected officials from both bodies, Ottawa would have continued as Operator of Record into the new year in a capacity similar to how operations were conducted in prior years.

“Now wait,” interrupted Ottawa Mayor Dean Meyer. “You didn’t just get this with the understanding of the asset management plan. You knew that was coming way back in March.”

Meyer is referring to the other new Ohio EPA requirements with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2018. That’s when Operators of Record were to have available for inspection an Asset Management Plan and a Contingency Plan (with the latter including Valve Exercising, Hydrant Flushing, and a Backflow and Cross-Connection Prevention Survey Plan).

“Yes, we did,” confirmed Betscher. “But, we were still working out an agreement that we couldn’t work out with the Village of Ottawa or anybody else. Because we didn’t have anything to deal with. We’ve been harping about it for nine months.”

As stated, Ottawa previously served as the Operator of Record for the county’s ‘Putnam-East’ system. Once the county was informed of the new regulations, it sought an agreement to transfer ownership to Ottawa. The village has also expressed its desire to take on the system, as it already owns and operates connected systems.

However, the county does not want Ottawa to take ownership of the Putnam-East water system without also assuming ownership of an adjacent sewer system, referred to as ‘Districts I & II.’

This sewer system is in need of repair. Inflow infiltration from surface water is likely penetrating these sanitary sewers, which were installed in the 70s, resulting in large monthly bills to the homeowners. Commissioner Lammers reported receiving a phone call from at least one resident upset over a $200 sewer bill for a single month’s usage.

What is not currently known is how much repairs are needed, and how expensive those repairs will be. Before taking on ownership, Ottawa would also like a storm sewer installed at the county’s expense, separate from the sanitary sewer. A stipulation that the county has agreed to in spirit.

However, as the ‘memorandum’ is currently written, it seems Ottawa would receive ownership of the water system by Jan. 31, 2019, with subsequent ownership of the sewer system put off indefinitely until Ottawa is satisfied that the system meets all of the village’s requirements. In the county’s view, this breaks the understanding that ownership of the systems would only transfer together.

In Ottawa’s view, as some officials have suggested, this stipulation serves to protect Ottawa taxpayers and water system ratepayers. By continuing indefinitely as Operator of Record, Ottawa would be agreeing to absorb the costs of new regulations for a system it does not own. By refusing to take the sewer system until after agreed upon repairs are completed, Ottawa seeks to avoid a situation that emerged when the village agreed to a height variance on a new communication tower that has since been built at the County Jail.

When the application for the variance was submitted to the Village of Ottawa, it included a plan to disassemble and remove the tower that still stands next to the courthouse. Instead of following that plan, as Ottawa preferred and thought had been agreed, the county chose to sell the communication tower to a private interest.

While technically within its rights to do so, some officials in Ottawa felt that the county had gone back on its word. Some officials expressed concern of a similar outcome should the village agree to take on ownership of a sewer system prior to repairs being completed - regardless of documents signed or the county’s stated intent.

For now, the Ohio EPA has granted a three-month extension for the county to continue negotiations with the Village of Ottawa. In the meantime, the county has pursued discussions with the Village of Columbus Grove regarding taking over operations. Jeff Vance, Columbus Grove’s Administrator would be named the Operator of Record, and the village has two other employees with the necessary licenses to help facilitate operations.

Those discussions are ongoing. An additional meeting is scheduled for this Thursday that includes Vance and a representative from Ohio’s EPA. Columbus Grove’s council would also have to approve any agreement, and their first meeting of the year is the evening of Monday, Jan. 14.