Council approves utilities sale to Citizens

The Westfield City Council voted 6-1 to transfer its water and wastewater assets to Citizens Energy Group for $91 million Monday evening. Mayor Andy Cook said the sale was a way for the city to pay off $45 million in water utility debt. The remaining amount will be used to assist Westfield’s transition into a growing city with roundabouts, trails and other infrastructure needs.

“This is a measureable part in the history of Westfield. It has not come around easily. The easiest thing is to do nothing, but that’s not what this council is known for. Endeavors like this are done with one thing in mind – what’s best for the city in the long term,” said Cook. “This is just the beginning, we’ve got a lot more to do. It’s been a long road, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Cindy Spoljaric

Council member Cindy Spoljaric cast the only dissenting vote, stating she was concerned about the one-time influx of cash and loss of city assets.

“It’s not in our best interest at this time,” she said.

Prior to the roll call vote, each council member provided their thoughts on the decision.

“It’s time to grow up, time to grow out and time to partner with someone who has greater capabilities then we do as a city,” said Councilman Jim Ake.

Councilman Bob Smith said Monday was “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make.” Smith said when he first heard about the proposal he was against it, but kept an open mind when looking at the impact the sale could make on lowering tax bills.

“It’s a cash cow for us and we need cash in hard times,” he said. “It’s not an easy vote, not an easy vote at all.”

Steve Hoover

Like Smith, Councilman Steve Hoover sees the sale as a way to attract businesses and lower the tax rate. He expressed his concern about the city’s position with its projected growth and needs for infrastructure.

“I had many of the same concerns the public has voiced. Those questions have all been satisfactory answered for me,” said Hoover. “I view this as a huge opportunity for the city.”

Councilman John Dippel said the deal “is not a win-win but a win-win.” Fellow Council member Rob Stokes agreed that the negotiations had many points favoring both the city and Citzens.

“It’s a net positive. We could nitpick every detail but that would take years,” said Stokes. “As the process goes forward, I want us to a diligent job using these funds.”

Westfield announced in April that it was exploring the idea of transferring the water and wastewater utilities to a qualified operator. As part of the public bidding process, the city issued a Request for Proposals and had three private systems bid. In September, a 45-day public outreach program began that included four public town hall meetings where residents were able to hear from Cook and Citizens Energy Group President and CEO Carey Lykins on the potential transfer.

“We are very excited about the opportunity to expand our service to the growing Westfield community,” said Lykins. “By creating Citizens Utilities of Westfield, an integrated water, wastewater and gas utility, we will provide outstanding customer service as we ensure Westfield has the water supply and utility infrastructure it needs to continue growing.”

With the council’s decision, the proposal now goes to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for its approval. Cook said the $91 million will not be paid to the city until approved from IURC, which will have a similar public hearing process. Lykins said that is a lengthy process and could take nine to 12 months. If the sale is approved, the IURC will also approve Citizens’ water rates.

What’s next? City officials are asking for input from its residents on how funds from the proposed utility transfer to Citizens Energy Group could be directed to infrastructure improvements throughout the city. Of the funds received from the potential transfer, nearly half will be earmarked for infrastructure improvements. Resident can vote on either the city’s Facebook Page or website, www.westfield.in.gov.