Homewood, Hazel Crest ask judge for order requiring Harvey to fix water system

Homewood and Hazel Crest will ask a Cook County Circuit Court judge on Friday to direct Harvey to repair its water system. 

The request comes two weeks after Judge Kathleen Pantle’s July 19 ruling, which took control over water finances* away from Harvey’s municipal government. She is appointing a receiver to be responsible for the water department. Homewood and Hazel Crest are asking the court to go a step further and include maintenance of the water system under court order.

Harvey buys its Lake Michigan water from Chicago and then sells it to other south suburban towns. Following the ruling, Harvey’s water will be controlled by an independent overseer.

Pantle said in the ruling that Harvey has misused millions of dollars from its water department account since 2015. It also owes millions more in back payments for water to Chicago.

Homewood buys water from Harvey and then sells it to Flossmoor. Following a 2016 ruling, Homewood has been making water payments directly to Chicago.

Pantle, a judge in the Chancery Division of the Cook County Circuit Court, ruled that the water infrastructure in Harvey needed to be secured for the municipalities downstream.

On Friday, the judge will consider the Homewood and Hazel Crest request asking the judge to direct the court-appointed receiver to order an assessment of Harvey’s water system; determine what needs improvement; order Harvey to bid out the work; and pay for the improvements at its own expense.

“We are concerned that with the financial control of the system turned over to a third party, Harvey will lose any motivation to engage in the type of long-term planning, discipline and implementation necessary to operate a public utility,” the response from the two villages reads.

“In simplest terms, we are concerned that from an operational standpoint, Harvey will simply limp along and continue to ignore long-term capital needs,” the complaint reads.

Homewood, Flossmoor and nine other area towns signed an intergovernmental agreement in late 2016 and early 2017 to begin looking into other sources of Lake Michigan water, possibly from Hammond, Ind., through Chicago Heights.

“A number of Southland communities continue to work to find an alternate water supply to maintain and control the cost of water to residents and other customers,” Flossmoor Village President Paul Braun said. “This is a very large undertaking which takes time and effort, and we remain optimistic that we will be able to bring positive news to the public.”

But for the time being, both towns will continue to get water through the Harvey system.

Homewood commissioned an inspection of Harvey’s water infrastructure between September 2014 and November 2015, a right stipulated in the contract. Much of that inspection couldn’t be done or was delayed because Harvey did not supply requested information and limited access to some facilities.

Assessments weren’t completed on water loss or main breaks because Harvey didn’t supply the information, according to a memorandum from Baxter & Woodman Consulting Engineers to Homewood Public Works Director John Schaefer in December 2015.

“Despite repeated requests for information (face-to-face meetings, phone calls and emails) and even a Freedom of Information Act request being filed, we received ‘no data’ from the city of Harvey,” the engineers' memo stated.

Harvey staff was reluctant and sometimes refused to turn on all pumps and electrical gear for testing, according to Baxter & Woodman. Inspectors weren't given access to a 5 million gallon reservoir on May 14, 2015 due to a broken lock on an access hatch. Harvey staff members wouldn't allow them to force their way in unless any resulting damage would be paid for.

The study did determine that three reservoirs, holding a total of 14.8 million gallons of water, were in need of repairs.

In the response filed Monday, Homewood said Harvey has not taken any action to make the repairs.

“Given Harvey’s history of misappropriation and neglect, Hazel Crest and Homewood are extremely concerned that unless specific operational duties and authorities are vested in the receiver, our communities will lose any chance we have for Harvey to make sorely needed long-term system improvements,” the response stated. “When a municipality buys water at wholesale from a municipal utility, one of the assets it should be buying is a system engaged in responsible long-term maintenance. Given the past history, we do not believe that Harvey will be competent to take on this function.”

Harvey government officials did not respond to a Chronicle request for comment.


This story originally noted Judge Kathleen Pantle's ruling would transfer control of Harvey's water operations to the receiver. The receiver's authority is over water-related finances. The Chronicle regrets the error.

 

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