HAMMOND | City officials and the town of Griffith are having a bureaucratic brawl that is completely in the sewer.
Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. wants more money from Griffith as well as Highland and Whiting to process their wastewater and is threatening to flood basements if they refuse.
Griffith officials say they won't be bullied and may just treat their own sewage or send it to a more congenial neighbor, like Schererville.
The contest concerns what is a fair price for sewage treatment. Hammond and Munster operate the Hammond Sanitary District serving their community's residents as well as Griffith, Highland and Whiting.
McDermott said all concerned enjoyed the lowest sewer rates in Indiana until recent mandates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced the sanitary district to construct a $55 million retention basin to stop dumping untreated wastewater into the Grand Calumet River during heavy stormwater events.
McDermott said Hammond and Munster have had to shoulder the cost — but not the other three communities.
"We treat wastewater from Whiting, Highland and Griffith at a loss to us, while Hammond and Munster residents are getting screwed. If the others want to be customers of the district, they have to participate in the pain," McDermott said.
Griffith Clerk-Treasurer George Jerome said, "We already send an unconscionably high amount of money to Hammond every month, as does Whiting and Highland."
Griffith officials said they have paid the district an average of $1.2 million annually for sewage treatment since 2009.
Although the cost varies annually with the volume of sewage, the dollar rate per gallon has been set in stone since a contract signed by all communities in the district was drafted more than two decades ago and will remain so until 2017, according to John Bach, Highland's public works director.
Bach said, "Like with any contract, as time goes on, you pick it apart. The rates were based on a cost of service study from the early 1990s. There is always some tension at the start of negotiations, but the communities don't want to wait until the eleventh hour and get pushed into a corner on a rate increase."
Robert Schwerd, attorney for Griffith, said Griffith, Highland and Whiting would like a new cost-of-service study to guide rate negotiation conducted by an analyst independent of the Hammond Sanitary District.
"We just got a sarcastic response from Hammond," Schwerd said. "If the figures in the contract are skewed, we are willing to look at that. Yes we should sit down, but not be treated in a dictatorial matter."
McDermott said, "Theoretically, Griffith and Highland could dig in their heels and say no, we won't raise our rates. But the volume they send us is not consistent with the contract, either."
He said Hammond recently installed more accurate flow meters and discovered the volume of sewage from Griffith, Highland and Whiting exceeds what was contemplated in the contract.
"Unless you want to pay a higher rate, we are going to enforce the contract, which means in a severe rain storm, when Griffith or Highland are pumping millions of gallons into the Sanitary District, we can shut off the valve.
"If we do, Whiting and Highland have places to put it, but in Griffith they would have flooded basements. I don't think they are going to be satisfied with that. The contract isn't realistic on price for us and isn't realistic on flow on their end. Let's go back to the table and cut a new deal," McDermott said.
Schwerd replied, "To threaten to turn it off means nothing to us because we haven't sent more than our contract limit for two to two and a half years."
Griffith's Jerome said they have looked at alternatives before and McDermott's tough talk will prompt them to renew that analysis, but he admits those options could be expensive.
"We would be more than happy to sit down and work with them because we have gone years without meetings with Hammond executives," said Griffith Town Councilman Rick Ryfa.
"Maybe it's a good thing McDermott is getting involved. I hope he makes it happen. We should work regionally as leaders to get a solution that is good for everybody."