Consolidation ahead for Lombard-area sanitary system?

Customers of the Highland Hills Sanitary District are expected to decide if they want the Lombard-area agency to continue as a stand-alone entity or be absorbed by DuPage County.

County officials say merging Highland Hills with the public works department could save hundreds of residential and business customers money - and provide Lake Michigan water for all.

"You have a viable entity out there with Highland Hills right now," Nicholas Kottmeyer, DuPage's director of public works and operations, said Tuesday. "You have a viable alternative, too."

Kottmeyer told members of the county board's public works committee that officials plan to hold a town-hall meeting next month and then send a survey to all Highland Hills customers.

Jim Worden, president of the sanitary district's board of trustees, said the district is confident it can meet customers' needs.

Still, he said: "We've got to bring it to the residents to determine how they want to proceed."

The district manages sanitary sewer service and water operations for roughly 465 residential and business properties in Lombard. A separate entity, Flagg Creek Water Reclamation District, treats the sewage.

Highland Hills came under scrutiny in 2012, when a consulting firm hired by DuPage found problems with the district.

At the time, Crowe Horwath concluded there were "significant concerns" about its sustainability. The district, for example, was deficit spending and maintaining an aging infrastructure.

In 2013, state lawmakers gave DuPage the power to eliminate Highland Hills and a dozen other local government entities. The county hired Christopher B. Burke Engineering to assess Highland Hills.

The assessment found Highland Hills had taken steps to address issues raised in the Crowe Horwath report.

Its water distribution system, which delivers treated well water, is in good shape. But the sewer collection system needs roughly $1.1 million in repairs.

When it comes to finances, Kottmeyer said the Highland Hills board has done "a tremendous job of righting the ship."

The district enacted roughly 5 percent rate increases in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and another 5 percent increase is scheduled next year.

By getting more revenue, the district stopped deficit spending and added to its reserve fund. It now has more than $500,000 in cash.

The problem, Kottmeyer said, is that Highland Hills is a small organization and limited in what it can do.

The district, for example, will have to raise fees to pay for repairs to its sewer collection system.

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