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posted: 3/26/2014 5:30 AM

DuPage taking closer look at two sanitary districts

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A new study will help DuPage County officials determine whether two sanitary districts serving residents in Lombard and Villa Park should continue operating as stand-alone entities.

County board members on Tuesday agreed to hire Christopher B. Burke Engineering to assess the operations of the Highland Hills and Salt Creek sanitary districts. As part of the $69,496 contract, the engineering firm also will evaluate potential cost savings through shared services or consolidation.

"We need to bring in some expertise right now," DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said. "Chris Burke wrote the book on sanitary engineering. He's going to come in and look at not only the infrastructure, but also the finances. His evaluation and recommendations will carry great weight."

DuPage County is involved because state lawmakers last year gave it the power to eliminate Salt Creek, Highland Hills and 11 other local government entities. One of them -- the Fairview Fire Protection District near Downers Grove -- is in the process of being dissolved now.

The study comes two years after a consulting firm hired by the county found problems with both sanitary districts.

Crowe Horwath concluded that Salt Creek, which provides sanitary sewer service to more than 7,500 properties in Villa Park, had been showing signs of decline.

"The erosion of the district's net assets over the past four years due to deficit spending, the age of the facility, the sensitivity of significant required rate increases and changes in key personnel call into question the ability of the district to remain a sustainable organization," the consultants wrote in their 2012 report.

The consulting firm said at the time there were "significant concerns" about the sustainability of Highland Hills.

The district, which manages sanitary sewer service and water operations for 499 properties in Lombard, had been deficit-spending for four years and maintaining aging infrastructure.

Since the release of the Crowe Horwath report, steps have been taken by Salt Creek and Highland Hills to address issues raised in the document, officials said.

"They've changed some of the conduct," Cronin said. "They still have some financial hurdles to get through."

Whether consolidation is the answer remains to be seen.

Cronin said there has been some talk about whether Salt Creek should be part of Villa Park.

"We want this thing to work, and we don't want it to be a financial burden for the village of Villa Park," Cronin said. "This is just about getting to a more efficient model of governance."

As for Highland Hills, it could be merged with Lombard, the county or another sanitary district, officials said.

"Now we need to get down to some cold, hard facts," Cronin said. "What is it going to take? We need an expert to come in and tell us."

The county is going to pay half the cost of the study. The rest of the money is coming from the two sanitary districts.

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