Sewerage is complicated, L-burg councilman says

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lewisburg's most outspoken councilman on the proposed water rate hikes says all he wants is what's right for the city, but that sewerage is complicated.

"This thing came down ... years ago," Councilman Robin Minor said Friday evening after an unrelated meeting in City Hall. "Why are we just finding out about it 60 days ago?"

"This thing" is Lewisburg's agreement with the state in 2007, according to City Manager Eddie Fuller.

Minor was elected in May 2007.

The agreement calls for a doubling of the sewage treatment plant's capacity and construction of a big tank to hold wastewater diluted by stormwater seeping into sewers because of cracks and breaks to city sewers, as well as residential service lines, some of which were improperly repaired.

The Water and Wastewater Department had been dealing with infiltration of groundwater for years before a Corrective Action Plan was submitted. The CAP is to bring the city into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 and its amendments. They protect rivers and streams, including Big Rock Creek, the waterway into which effluent is released from the city sewage treatment plant.

Holes in sewers won't get smaller, Minor points out, so instead of spending $13 million to expand the plant, he's asked: Wouldn't it be better to fix the problem instead of treat the symptom?

Two figures have emerged from discussion about the problem of groundwater seeping into sewers, thereby greatly increasing the flow of wastewater as a result of rainstorms. One was $170 million. A later figure was $100 million. Both are more than seven times the cost of expanding the plant that could provide the city with capacity for growth.

The broad estimates stem from figures assembled from work contracts that totaled $547,582.16, according to information obtained Thursday afternoon.

Lewisburg received a Community Development Block Grant check signed by Gov. Phil Bredesen for the most recent sewer rehabilitation project. The city's cost of the jointly funded project was 18 percent of the total. The grant paid the rest. The money passed through the state from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It was our fourth pipe rehab," Water and Wastewater Department Superintendent Kenneth Carr said Friday. "It was the smallest ... [and it was largely] in the Lewisburg Housing Authority area."

The recently completed Sewer System Rehabilitation Project consisted of:

* Renovation of 4,214 linear feet of eight-inch sewer line with cured in-place pipe method,

* Renovation of 2,657 linear feet of six-inch and eight-inch sewer line with new eight-inch pipe using open cut methods;

* Replacement of 25 manholes; and,

* Replacement of 116 sewer connections from the mainline to the customer's property line or easement line including the installation of new cleanouts at the property line.

"The total cost of this project was $547, 582.16," Carr said in a prepared statement that included the 6,871 linear feet of pipe replacement.

That 6,871 linear feet of pipeline is 1.3 miles. Since the fourth project was the smallest, it would appear that at least 5.2 miles of city sewers have been replaced during an eight-year period. CDBG funds must be spent before another grant is authorized. Each project usually takes about two years.

An exact measurement of the length of city sewers was not immediately available on Friday afternoon, but a broad estimate, compared to the miles of waster pipes in the city, indicated there might be -- generally speaking -- 100 miles.

It is impossible to know how many miles of those pipes need repair unless the city proceeds with an aggressive search. Discussion at the most recent regularly scheduled meeting of the Water and Wastewater Board included speculation on whether the department should take that approach.

Doing so could result in the discovery of residential service lines that are allowing groundwater to seep into the sewerage system that dilutes sewage in the sewers. When customer-owned pipes are found to be allowing groundwater into the system, the utility has the authority to issue a letter to the owner of the property advising that a certain period of time is allowed for repairs and that thereafter drinking water service could be discontinued. It's part of the enforcement process.

A recent check of the city sewer and pipes tapped onto the gravity-flow collection system revealed at least three residential taps were open to service lines that allowed stormwater to seep into the sewage collection and treatment system. In that instance the city closed the sewer taps without causing problems for residents because one house was empty and the other two taps were open to empty lots where houses had been demolished.

While the total cost of repairing residential service lines and city sewers has not been calculated, its been known for several years that doubling the sewage treatment plant to 6 million gallons per day, plus building a large holding tank, would cost approximately $13 million, an estimate that would appear to be based on construction labor rates before the housing construction boom burst, resulting in unemployment.

Meanwhile, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the economic stimulus program authorized by Congress, has provided money to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), the agency that enforces regulations promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), including those mandated by the Clean Water Act of 1972 and its subsequent amendments.

TDEC's Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program has notified Lewisburg that the city's Water and Waste Water Department's $13 million project is eligible for a lone, but that the principal of the loan would be forgiven, excused, and considered a debt that does not have to be repaid. It's how a loan can become a grant through the government's series of programs to assist utilities.

On May 18, Dale Hager, a certified public accountant in TDEC's State Revolving Fund Loan Program Financial Section, wrote to Lewisburg's mayor saying that the city's plan is "within the funding zone of the Fiscal Year 2010-11 CWSRF Priority Ranking List," so it can be funded as requested by city officials' request on Feb. 7.

Ironically, Hager's letter was addressed to "Mayor Robert Phillips" on May 18, 2010, or about a year after Phillips stepped aside and when Mayor Barbara Woods' term began.

To get funding for the project, the city was asked to notify Dr. Bagher Sami, manager of the SRF Loan Program's Administrative Section, by June 18, Hager wrote to Lewisburg.

"If we do not receive a letter of request from you by June 30, your project may be bypassed to the next highest-ranking project," Hager said.

Lewisburg's water utilities notified TDEC in a timely fashion and, as suggested by Hager's May 18 letter, a representative of the city attended a pre-application conference on July 2.

"I attended that meeting," Pepper Biggers, assistant superintendent of the water utility, said during an interview at the water department on Friday afternoon. "I told them we were very interested in participating."

To continue to be eligible for the forgivable loan, Lewisburg's water department must show that it is financially capable of repaying the balance of the cost of the project.

The forgivable loan is expected to be $2 million; thereby reducing the sum the city must borrow to about $11 million.

A water rate schedule that will generate revenue to repay such a loan -- money probably to be borrowed through the sale of income tax free municipal utility bonds -- is required to show that the city is financially capable of repaying the balance of the cost of the project, according to explanations from utility department leaders.

The water rate schedules that have been presented to Lewisburg's City Council -- during several recent meetings -- would meet that requirement. However, each time the council has either deferred action, or rejected -- by a majority vote -- the water rate hike needed to generate revenue to repay such a loan.

The council s scheduled to meet again on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the second floor conference room of City Hall, 131 E. Church St.

During a discussion in a ground floor conference room on Friday evening, Minor renewed some of his questions about the proposed rate hike and steps taken in the years before Carr became the superintendent of the utility.

The councilman's questions include:

* Why did the department decide to extend a water pipe from Cornersville to the Giles County line?

The pipeline generally parallels the Lynnville Highway. There aren't two-dozen customers on that line, Minor said.

The line des reach to a rural utility that could use the Lynnville line as another source of water, according to department discussion at the time. That would increase water sales and thereby increase revenue.

Beyond that Lynnville line are open acres known as the Mars farm, a property once owned by the then proprietor of the Mars candy company. The land has been seen as prime development property for sizeable homes. The development remains in the planning stages.

* Why did the department purchase the Cornersville water and sewer utilities?

It's especially suspect, Minor said, when department leaders knew that the Lewisburg sewerage system faced the prospect of more civil penalties from the state for allowing partially treated sewage to pass through its wastewater plant.

Revenue has been one reason forwarded by utility department leaders. Lewisburg is Cornersville's source of water. When Cornersville ran its own system, it bought water at wholesale prices and sold it at retail prices to its customers. Now, Lewisburg is being paid directly from customers in Cornersville and the city is receiving the retail price. Income went up.

Another point raised during the discussion Friday afternoon is TDEC's authority to revoke Lewisburg's permits to operate the sewage treatment plant if it's found to be out of compliance with the Clean Water Act.

That could include state operation of the municipal system.

It could come with moratoriums on sewer taps, meaning no new customers could be added to the system.

The issues are complicated, Minor said on the front steps of City Hall. The job of being a city councilman is not easy, he said.