Council rejects rate hike

Friday, September 10, 2010
Councilman Robin Minor is 'not a happy camper' because of water rate hikes and reasons given for them.

Lewisburg's City Council has again rejected proposed water and sewer rate hikes to pay for expansion of the city sewage treatment plant as directed by state officials.

Doubling the plant's capacity to six million gallons per day and building a container to hold rain-swollen wastewater until flows subside is expected to cost $13 million.

Cracks in sewers allow stormwater to seep in, thereby diluting wastewater piped to the plant. Fixing broken collection pipes might cost the city $100 million, Water and Wastewater Department Superintendent Kenneth Carr told the council during a special called meting on Tuesday afternoon.

Councilman Robin Minor challenged the cost estimate, saying no studies have been conducted.

Such estimates came during discussion at last week's Water and Wastewater Board meeting when it was noted that much of the problem is on private property where homeowners would have to foot the plumbers' bill.

"How many are in the city like that?" Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. asked as council discussion focused on the cause and not the symptom that a plant expansion project would address.

Minor reported his home's pipe to the city sewer was broken and caused problems.

"I didn't want to pay for it," the councilman said of plumbing repair, "but I had to."

Without a number for residential service lines that allow groundwater to seep into city sewers, Carr replied to Whitehead, "There are probably some that should have been fixed 25 years ago."

Whitehead said letters could be sent to property owners where the city finds pipes that allow water to seep into city sewers. While that dilutes sewage, it increases the volume that must be treated at the plant.

Spending $13 million to increase the sewage treatment plant's capacity from three million gallons per day (mgd) to six mgd and having a big holding tank won't solve the cause of the problem, Minor said.

"What would TDEC (the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation) do if we were actually going to solve the problem?" Minor asked.

Mayor Barbara Woods reminded Minor that Lewisburg has an agreement with TDEC saying the city would expand the plant and build a holding tank to keep untreated, or only partially treated, sewage from flowing into the creek which is listed by the state as impaired, meaning it's not supporting all the uses it's had.

Carr added that federal stimulus money is available to cut the city's $13 million cost by $2 million, but there's a deadline this month for Lewisburg's eligibility to get that federal money.

Minor was unmoved.

Councilman Hershel Davis, chairman of the water board, voted for his motion to adopt an ordinance on the first of three required votes to raise water rates so the city could repay loans for the treatment plant.

Voting no were Whitehead, Minor and Councilman Ronald McRady. Councilman Quinn Stewart abstained. She is Cornersville's town judge and since Lewisburg owns the Cornersville system, she is not voting or participating in the discussion.

"I can agree to something," Minor said to explain his vote, "but not to the way this is."

Minor has been the most outspoken councilman about the proposed rate hike that would increase an average city household water and sewer bill by $7 per month.

His earlier approach to the rate hike was to increase the rates on residents who don't live in the city because they don't pay property taxes. That was not part of the discussion Tuesday afternoon.

Discussion did include the mayor's observation that the state could levy civil penalties for not complying with environmental regulations. A $14,000 penalty was imposed several years ago and the city paid $4,000 and the $10,000 was "forgiven," Woods said. Civil penalties can be charged at $10,000 daily.

"We are under a Director's Order," she said, "and a Corrective Action Plan."

After the meeting, Minor asked City Attorney Steve Broadway to "call TDEC and ask them, 'What if we can come up with a way to fix the pipes?'

"I don't think we should be stuck with something the water department stuck this council with five years ago."