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posted: 10/18/2012 5:01 PM

Wauconda residents hear details, speak out on Lake Michigan water referendum

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By John Kelly
Daily Herald correspondent

Told they face "the most important decision" in Wauconda's history, residents at a town-hall meeting about switching to Lake Michigan water unleashed a torrent of questions about the project and its cost.

The fate of the $50 million project will be decided Nov. 6 by a referendum, which will ask voters to approve a $41 million loan to cover infrastructure costs and other fees. The remaining $9 million would come from higher water rates.

At stake is the future of the village's water supply, which officials say is susceptible to contamination and projected to fall short of future demand. For taxpayers, the referendum's passage would mean hundreds of dollars a year added to their water and property tax bills.

Mayor Mark Knigge and former Village Administrator David Geary, speaking to more than 150 residents Wednesday night, said the village had invested six years of study and roughly $100,000 to secure a hard-to-obtain Lake Michigan water allocation.

Without financing for engineering and infrastructure work, they said, the village will likely lose the allocation by failing to make "substantial progress" by 2015, as required.

"If we get out of line, the opportunity to get it again is slim to none," Geary told audience members gathered in an auditorium at Wauconda High School.

Following a presentation that largely extolled advantages to Lake Michigan water, residents lined up at a microphone and questioned village officials for two hours on everything from the chemical properties of Great Lakes water to who would control water rates in the future.

Many residents expressed outright support for the project; several others said the expense was a concern.

One resident, Jennifer Fosnass, said the Lake Michigan water pumped to her last home in unincorporated Wheaton was "wonderful" and naturally "soft." But after seeing taxes on her lakefront property in Wauconda rise last year she questioned the value of switching water sources. "It's getting cost prohibitive with all the taxes in Lake County," she said.

For the owner of a $200,000 house with average water use, the project is expected to add $32 in monthly property taxes and $11 to monthly water bills -- totaling $516 a year. The taxes would be phased in over two years and last 33 years to pay off the bonds.

Today, household water comes from eight village wells that pump groundwater from an aquifer shared by five states. Knigge said the summer drought that parched much of the Midwest gave Wauconda a glimpse at a strained water supply. The village ordered lawn-watering restrictions after one well nearly dried up and another had a mechanical failure.

Tim Howe, a Main Street resident who spoke in favor of the referendum, said switching water sources seemed a prescient move to avoid "fighting tooth and nail" for future water from an overburdened aquifer.

Wauconda's population is projected to rise 28 percent to 17,400 by 2040.

Knigge and Geary said the alternative, drilling more wells, comes with an expense of its own. The cost -- around $23 a month, officials said -- would result from more water treatment and disposing of treated byproducts like radium and barium, two contaminants in groundwater.

Knigge said the $50 million cost was a "worse-case scenario" and negotiations could result in a deal for as low as $38 million. He said the decision to pay off the debt primarily through property taxes was less expensive than using water bill increases.

Talks are under way with four suppliers, he said, including the Central Lake County Joint Action Water Agency, Northwest Water Commission, North & West Group, and the village of Northbrook.

While some communities have pressed forward with similar projects without asking residents for permission, Geary said, the village felt it should be put to a vote.

Should voters reject the referendum, the mayor vowed the village board would not push through the project.

"We're giving you the final word," Knigge said.

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