TOPEKA — The chairman of the Riley County Commission vowed Thursday to begin paying for two residential sewer connections to the City of Manhattan’s treatment system following disclosure the city and county wasn’t compensated for service to his family’s property for nearly 50 years.
Chairman Ron Wells, who expects to begin paying city sewer fees after Jan. 1, contends his parents were given free lifetime sewer service by Riley County in the 1960s in exchange for placing underground pipe through their farmland. He claimed a county letter proves the deal existed, but no copy of the document has been found by members of Wells’ family nor staff digging through city and county files.
Wells, who labeled the controversy “Sewergate,” said he met with city and county administrators on the pipeline matter following publication Sunday of a report in the Topeka Capital-Journal.
He said he signed paperwork to start paying for city sewer connections at two residential addresses on the property. One is for the ranch-style house previously occupied by his parents and the other is for an apartment he built into a workshop on the land.
“An agreement has been come to,” Wells said in an interview. “We need to get on with county business and city business.”
Ron Fehr, city manager of Manhattan, didn’t reply to a request for comment on the development outlined by Wells. Previously, Fehr said a deal granting a residential customer infrastructure services at no cost would be unusual.
Wells, elected to the county commission in 2012 and now serving a second term, said the controversy persuaded him not to seek a third term in 2021.
“I’m done. I don’t want to be a politician anymore,” he said.
He said neither the city nor the county have been able to locate evidence of sewer-system fee payments since 1968 on the Wells’ property, which is outside Manhattan city limits. Two residences on the property were tied into the sewer pipeline, which eventually was transferred by the county to control by the city.
Wells said the search of old records resulted in discovery by the county’s planning department of a 1966 document securing an easement for a pipeline on property owned by Wells’ parents. That document authorizes 11 connections to the sewer pipeline in exchange for the easement, but doesn’t address payment for sewer services.
In 2016, a county employee questioned Wells about sewer services to the commissioner’s property. Wells told county administrators he had a letter promising sewer services at no charge, but hasn’t been able to produce a copy of that document.
Two county officials, at that time, accepted Wells’ explanation despite lack of documentary evidence. Wells was urged by county staff in a memorandum to contact City Hall about the status of his sewer connections or risk “considerable” back charges.
Wells chose not to voluntarily follow that advice, and it doesn’t appear county staff made an effort to independently contact peers at City Hall.
In August, Riley County employee Steven DeHart, who initially questioned Wells about the sewer hookups, was fired. DeHart, who viewed the situation as theft of government services, said his county supervisor had warned him in 2016 his job could be in jeopardy if he refused to drop the matter.