City's WT-5 dilemma like a big Catch-22

Sunday, August 23, 2015


What the WT-5 is going on here?

While WT-5 might resemble some obnoxious texting shorthand, what it really stands for has been a rude awakenig that's making city officials swear to themselves the past few months. It's like a big, fat paradoxical Catch-22 facing the City of Greencastle.

A WT-5 is a level 5 licensed water treatment plant operator. The City of Greencastle employs one -- Water and Wastewater Department Superintendent Rob Lovell -- but needs five.

New Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations in play now that Greencastle's population exceeds 10,000 require around-the-clock monitoring of the city's water treatment plant. That means the city requires WT-5 manpower of at least four more licensed operators in order to function 24/7, Mayor Sue Murray said.

The WT-5 issue resurfaced at the Greencastle Board of Works meeting last week when it was revealed that additional licensed operators must be hired by Dec. 31 in order to comply with the necessary WT-5 edict and everything else involved in the city's agreed order with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), which enforces EPA regulations and the unfunded mandates therein.

And at this point, such hirings don't seem likely due to salary issues that might deter licensed operators from locating in Greencastle when they could make more money working elsewhere.

The qualifications for a WT-5 are stringent as well. In order to even take the test to quality, a person must hold an operator's license per se and have been employed at a water treatment plant for three years.

Testing only comes around twice a year and the exam has been so difficult to pass that those who do achieve that are in such demand they generally end up with higher-paying private-sector jobs or in cities like Carmel and Columbus that can afford to pay larger salaries.

So Greencastle finds itself in quite a quandary.

"I wish there was an easy answer," Mayor Murray said, exasperated at being unable to making any inroads on solving the dilemma over the past several months.

Desperate times, of course, often call for desperate measures. And that is what's happening.

As one Hail Mary of sorts, the city is sending letters to all WT-5 licensed operators within an hour's drive of Greencastle, Mayor Murray told the Banner Graphic. That list includes some 70 already licensed operators, including at least one who resides in Spencer.

Another step that city officials don't want to have to take is the possibility of turning over water-plant operations to a private, for-profit enterprise that could afford to pay the necessary WT-5 operators.

In fact, requests for proposals are to be sent out by the city this week seeking candidates interested in running the plant if the issue comes to that.

"We're trying to go down every road we can," Mayor Murray said, adding that "there are not a lot of firms out there to send it (a request for proposals) to."

One possibility, the mayor told the Banner Graphic, would be to try that private-firm avenue on a three-year contract, hoping that either more WT-5 operators would become available, additional city employees might qualify for such licensing or changes occur at the state level to reduce what has become an obstacle for Greencastle and cities of like size around the state.

At the August City Council meeting, Lovell advised that absolutely no qualified applicants had applied for the WT-5 positions advertised by the city. One person had contacted Lovell but he was not qualified in Indiana.

"I have made several calls to talk to some of the operators that I know personally," Lovell said in a letter he prepared for Board of Works members. "With each one it was the same, the salary range the City of Greencastle is offering ($1,692 biweekly entry level to $2,153 biweekly maximum) was not enough to encourage them to leave their current positions."

Earlier in the year, the city did have one employee pass the test but he immediately resigned from city employment and accepted a private-sector position with a significant pay increase.

Lovell's letter also addressed the possibility of the water utility being operated by an outside company.

"If this occurs, the City of Greencastle will lose total control of utility rates and customer service," he suggested.

"The costs the city will incur will be significantly higher, as these companies must make a profit and pay their operators their salaries and benefits. I feel the rate increase residents of Greencastle will incur will be significantly higher than the rate increase the city needs just to hire their own operators."

But the other side of that coin is lack of availability of such WT-5 operators.

"We've advertised, we've raised our salaries," City Council President Adam Cohen said during the recent Council meeting, stumped at what else can be done if there are not any viable candidates to fill the required positions.

"We already know there's not a lot of WT-5s out there," the mayor responded.

Councilman Cohen played devil's advocate, asking what happens if the city is not in compliance by Jan. 1.

"They're not going to shut the water off," he assured.

However, the city would be in violation of the agreed order with IDEM, City Attorney Laurie Hardwick said, noting that daily fines would almost certainly result from such inaction.

"We need to show good faith," she said.

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  • All you need to do is shrink the city limits to under 10,000 people, and tell the powers that be, to go pound sand.

    -- Posted by agadgetguy on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 7:15 AM
  • "I feel the rate increase residents of Greencastle will incur will be significantly higher than the rate increase the city needs just to hire their own operators."

    Obviously not because you cannot get anyone to work at the salary you're offering. Looks to me like you only have 2 options hire a private company (and have them increase rates) or increase rates on your own to be able to pay the market salary for people with this credential. Makes me a little nervous that people in charge of this don't seem to understand basic economics.

    The root of this problem is an out of control EPA which issues rules like this (and carbon emission restrictions) without any thought on how they will affect consumers. But i guess when you elect a president who says he wants energy prices to "necessarily skyrocket" you shouldn't be surprised.

    -- Posted by hometownboy on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 7:22 AM
  • agadgetguy,

    The regulation doesn't apply to the population of Greencastle but to the number of people who the water treatment plant serves. Therefore, unless you build a new water treatment plant under a separate incorporated entity (a vastly more expensive option compared to hiring 4 more employees) your solution won't work.

    -- Posted by hometownboy on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 8:04 AM
  • Hometownboy, i read it as the population of Greencastle now exceeds 10,000

    -- Posted by agadgetguy on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 8:45 AM
  • agadetguy,

    I read it that way at first too but did some research and found the following from IDEM:

    If you scroll down to page 14 it defines WT5 as a system which "Serve a population of 10,001 or more people..." This would indicate that it is tied to the number of people it serves not the population of the town. Therefore, you'd have to split the current water district up and build a new plant to be in compliance.

    The reporter should reword the 5th paragraph of the article to state, " play now that the Greencastle water district serves a population over 10,000". The regulation is not tied to the city population but to the overall number of people the water district serves.

    -- Posted by hometownboy on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 9:18 AM
  • So, the 47% increase in water rates a while back was used for what? Training the guy that left? New pumps? A new holding tank? The former employee that we paid to train was making between 28K-38k per year. I understand that when he became WT-5 certified, he asked for a modest pay raise and was told that he would do the job for his current salary. A short time later he was offered a 20K per year raise to take his skills 30 miles east and still lives in this area. Reelsville built their own water plant. Let Fillmore do the same. Our rates are already higher than those in Carmel and Zionsville with nothing to show for it but more headaches. Maybe grant money is available to pay some folks the going rate for this cert. maybe our new city motto should be A Great Looking Downtown but You Can't afford to drink the water

    -- Posted by Vernie1 on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 5:06 PM
  • Anyone who has worked with the EPA knows that they give you more than a few months to correct a deficiency. Is it possible that our city officials did not develop a workable plan to correct the deficiency before the deadline and are now in panic mode because they have waited until their backs are against the wall?

    -- Posted by 28yearsisenough on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 9:34 PM
  • *

    Here it is straight from IDEM:WT5

    Class WT5 (water treatment 5) includes systems that meet the


    (A) Serve a population of ten thousand one (10,001) or more


    (B) Acquire water from one (1) of the following:

    (i) Surface water

    (ii) Ground water under the direct influence of surface


    Take notice the last line. (ii) Ground water under the direct influence of surface water.That is why Greencastle has to have the W-T 5 operators. The wells are under direct influence from the Big Walnut. It doesn't make the water bad it just means it has to be dealt with differently. The "WT-5 operator" left a year after getting his license because of the way he was mistreated at the city of Greencastle more so than dollars. The company that he went to is a NON FOR PROFIT organization. Selling out the utility would only do one thing in the long term. It would have the new owner create a rate increase to pay for the new salaries instead of the City doing it. The city could leave out the middle man and just do what is necessary. Maybe the people of Greencastle should look at this like the current people in charge doesn't know how to run it like a buisness, because that is how you have to look at it.The citizens should be getting tired of being lied too and sold out and start attending some of the meetings before it to late.

    -- Posted by kjjmcc on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 10:12 PM
  • I have to agree with the previous commentors, this and similar previous administrations have dragged it's feet so many times and wasted our tax money, parroting the President on "Spending for the future" instead of paying off our debts. Delaying the start of road repairs in front of the high school until long into the summer so they continued long into the school year, causing a big rate hike when the water department had to replace all of the existing wells at one time instead of saving each year for single replacements per year, building a slightly improved sewage treatment plant instead of a much larger one to absorb the eventual inclusion of the needed sewage pipelines in the Golf Course Hill north of the railroad tracks. As it sits now, all the sewage from those houses flow into the near surface level draining from their septic tanks down the hill into the creek right beside our city water wells. Very soon we will need to build another water tower for the north end of town. THE COMMON SENSE SOLUTION: Repairs and new constructions must be saved up for, or every time there is an immediate need, the Administators will just get us furthur into long term debt with the financing of projects instead of saving up money and paying for them with cash. Credit takes many years to pay off, cash in the bank saves us 20 years of payments.

    -- Posted by alfr1 on Mon, Aug 24, 2015, at 11:19 PM
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