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New utility director will seek ways to trim costs

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CUMBERLAND — Steve Yagelski’s first four weeks on the job have been overwhelming, but Cumberland’s new utility director says he’s up for the challenge.

Yagelski started work Oct. 29 in a newly created position to oversee the town’s four utilities. He was tasked with finding ways to save money and also weigh in on the proposed 60 percent water rate hike for Gem Utility customers. Yagelski said he’s getting acclimated to the community and the challenges on his new job.

Yagelski has 21 years experience in utilities. Originally from northwestern Indiana, he served on Chesterton’s utility board before becoming superintendent of the wastewater and storm water departments for 15 years. Yagelski moved to Crawfordsville in 2009 to become a district superintendent for Indiana American Water.

But earlier this year that position was eliminated when Indiana American Water decided to combine management positions. Yagelski worked in a warehouse for five months, but when he saw an advertisement for Cumberland’s new position, he knew it would be a good fit.

“I knew I could do it, but it’s a challenge,” Yagelski said. “(The town council was) looking for a unified approach to run all of the (utilities) and get them under control.”

The job opportunity and the chance to work in a small community similar to the one he grew up in gave Yagelski reasons to seek the job.

He was hired last month at the same time town manager Jeff Sheridan resigned. Sheridan had said he was forced out of the position he held for eight years. Council president Mark Reynold said the council could see a cost savings by restructuring its personnel.

With Gem Utilities having two branches, water and wastewater, and Cumberland also having a sanitary and storm water utility, Reynold said it’s been a vision of the council to streamline all four and find ways to save.

Councilwoman Anna Pea said Yagelski has been a “godsend.”

After all, utility management has been a tough subject for town officials. The clerk-treasurer’s office has struggled with billing issues and how to collect outstanding debt, and Gem Utilities customers have shown animosity toward Cumberland since it acquired Gem in 2010. Sewer fees are a high, flat rate for every Gem customer, and a financial study indicates a 60 percent water rate hike is necessary to put the utility in the black.

The town council has held off on passing a rate hike after dozens of customers complained in a heated meeting this summer.

Pea said while they are still waiting to make a decision, she’s glad the community has a utility director with Yagelski’s experience to give them guidance.

“A lot of this is new, so having a utility director, someone who knows the ins and outs, it’s a lot easier,” Pea said. “It’s made me feel a lot more comfortable.”

Yagelski said he has yet to meet with Greg Guerrettaz, the financial consultant who performed the study in the Gem Utilities hike. Until then, he said it’s too early to tell if such a hike is necessary.

Still, he said “anything is always possible” in finding ways to cut costs. He also needs to research what data or capital improvement projects Guerrettaz based his numbers on.

“I don’t know what his calculations were based on at this point,” Yagelski said. “I know the council doesn’t enjoy the idea of a high rate increase but … if you allow the utility to go too far without a rate adjustment, you end up with a large increase.”

Yagelski said he must also iron out the budgets for all four utilities, something he wants to get a handle on next month.

Clerk-Treasurer Grace Heck said she’s pleased with the transition so far.

Her office is charged with collecting money from customers, but when there are problems, Heck said it has been difficult to know what to do.

“He has the background and experience of overseeing utilities,” Heck said. “When we’ve had questions in the past, we never got the answer or got put off and we had to make decisions ourselves.”

Heck said communication has improved since Yagelski arrived. He has been supportive of her staff, and has responded quickly whenever they have questions.

Yagelski hopes to move to Cumberland or the Indianapolis eastside soon. He is married to Diane, and they have three grown daughters and four grandchildren.

Yagelski actually holds a degree in journalism. He was a reporter and photographer for a newspaper in northwest Indiana two years before taking on a job in public relations at a steel company.

He became interested in utilities when he was appointed in 1990 to Chesterton’s utility board. He quickly absorbed the ins and outs of utility management, and took on the job as superintendent of the town’s utilities in 1994.

Yagelski had also been working with Chesterton’s plan commission. He said Cumberland’s staff in the last few weeks has been helpful showing him the ropes on the town’s economic development and residential plans.

“If you’re planning the future of your community, one of the most integral parts is utilities,” Yagelski said. “You need to know what the vision is for the community.”

Yagelski said he’s glad to be in central Indiana, especially because his children, grandchildren and in-laws all live in the area now.

While constantly looking through town studies, plans and meeting new people, Yagelski said he’s slowly becoming acclimated.

“Every day I feel a little bit more comfortable, because more of the puzzle is starting to come together,” he said.

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