Two councilmen express dismay at management of utility

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

At least two Lewisburg councilmen have expressed a loss of confidence in the management of the city water system -- complaining sewage plant expansion costs were presented late and money was spent on the wrong projects.

Removing the department director, however, is now out of reach for councilmen who have also ex-pressed an interest in reorganizing the appointment system so elected councilmen will have more control over the Water and Waste-water Depart-ment.

Such comments have come as the city council deliberated toward a vote to increase water rates by about 19 percent on an average household. The first vote was Friday morning. The second vote was Monday evening. A third is planned with a public hearing on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in City Hall where concerns about the utility's management have been heard.

"I have lost confidence in the management of the water department in the last two months," Councilman Robin Minor said Monday during the council's special meeting when the panel voted for a water rate hike schedule to pay for sewage plant expansion.

Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. had said substantially the same thing last week during the council's regularly scheduled meeting when the panel rejected -- for the last time -- a rate schedule recommended by the Water and Wastewater Board.

Councilman Ronald McRady last week criticized utility Superintendent Kenneth Carr for presenting the council with the rate hike schedule so late this summer. The department's leader should have gone to top leaders of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) for a delay on the $13 million plant expansion until the economy improves and customers can afford the rate hike.

If that failed, McRady said an appeal should be made to state Sen. Bill Ketron and state Rep. Eddie Bass, or the governor to tell TDEC to "give us some slack... The water department can sit on it, or run with it."

Whitehead agreed.

"If he's not doing that, maybe we have the wrong man in charge of the department," Whitehead said.

Immediately after the council's meeting on Sept. 14, Councilman Hershel Davis, chairman of the Water and Wastewater Board, was asked who hires and fires the utility's superintendent.

"The water board hires the superintendent," Davis replied.

As for members of the board, Davis said, "The mayor appoints them for two years and one member of the council represents the council" on the utility board.

The last time a member of the utility board was appointed was "after the mayor was elected." That was in May 2009.

Lewisburg's next election is in early May next year, or less than eight months from now.

Lewisburg's Water and Wastewater Board has plans to double the sewage plant's capacity from three million gallons per day to six mgd, and for construction of a 10 million gallon holding tank for untreated sewage to give the plant time to deal with an increased volume of wastewater diluted with rain and ground water seeping into the collection system.

In 1986, a swirl system was authorized and partly funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to remove solids and allow the remaining diluted sewage to pass through the tank with partial treatment. Since then, complete chemical treatment has been required by EPA, so the expansion and 10 million gallon tank are planned.

Financing of the $13 million project is planned with $2 million from federal stimulus money and a loan from the state's revolving loan program that has had rates of about two percent in recent weeks. To be eligible, the utility must prove it's capable of making payments and so a new, higher rate schedule is needed.

McRady, Whitehead and Minor have objected, saying because of the recessionary economy here, utility customers can't afford the increase.

Furthermore, they've said individually, or in agreement with each others' statements, that the utility shouldn't have bought the Cornersville water system because that money would have been available for the sewage treatment project. The same is said of the water pipeline from Cornersville out the Lynnville Highway to Giles County.

"Lewisburg residents are being held hostage," Minor said during a special called meeting on Monday morning. "We are being mandated by what the water department wanted...

"Maybe there is some control we can take back," Minor said. "I don't like this and it burns me deep."

Acknowledging the cause of the problem is water leaking into the sewers, Minor said they must be fixed, too.

"It's a health detriment to the city ... residents," Minor said.

He wants "to see if there's a change that can be made to have some say-so over this."

The middle school history teacher continued, "Today is Constitution Day. So, here we are, sitting with elected officials who don't have a choice."

Whitehead agreed.

"We were blindsided and so ... we will have to do something to deal with this so we have more control over what's done in the water department - starting at the top," Whitehead said Friday morning.

"If we make someone mad, so be it," the councilman said, turning to City Manager Eddie Fuller.

Whitehead asked Fuller to start the work needed to accomplish what he wants.

The council met Monday afternoon in a workshop session to draft a job description for the city manager's position. It's to be used in an advertisement calling for applications for the job of city manager because Fuller's retirement starts at the end of October.