The wastewater rate debate

Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Robin Minor, left, listens to Buddy Tankersley, right, after Lewisburg's council meeting as Bob Lowe, left rear, hears Brenda Davis' comment.

Lewisburg's attorney and its Water and Wastewater Department lawyer are examining five water rate ordinances because residents object to paying sewer bills when they're not connected and have a working septic tank.

The on-going complaint was brought again by Bob Lowe, a city resident who's pressed the issue, most recently saying his bill was adjusted without it being taken to the utility board or to the City Council's monthly meeting in City Hall.

Meanwhile, utility Superintendent Kenneth Carr says a meeting will be conducted within 30 days at City Hall to hear public comments about the State Revolving Fund loan that's to finance a $13 million project to double the capacity of the sewage treatment plant and build a big retention tank for raw sewage that's to be treated when high flows recede after rain stops seeping into pipes and sewage returns to normal flows.

Expansion of the plant is cheaper than fixing leaky sewers, although that's being done in almost every municipality in the nation, officials have explained as this long-term project has been revealed here.

City Attorney Steve Broadway and utility Attorney Dan Whitaker are examining sewer-use ordinances adopted in 1974, '84, '91, '96 and 2006, Carr said Monday. Most of the changes were for sewer rates that must be approved by the state, largely because of debt repayment and a requirement that utilities in Tennessee be self-sufficient. Only user rates can support utilities in this state.

The rate changes approved in September were sent to the state to prove they will generate enough revenue to pay off state loans and bonds for the utilities.

Asked if removal of fees for the availability of sewer service - that is, a nearby pipe with no tap - could lower revenue enough to warrant another rate hike, Carr replied, "Well, that's certainly possible."

He has, however, emphasized that there are only a few instances where a sewer pipe is close, but not used and a resident is required to pay a sewer bill because the service is available.

Asked again about a water rate hike, Carr replied, "I don't know how to answer that now until I see how big or small that usage is. We're going to wait and see what the attorneys say about it."

Four weeks ago, the Tribune reported the city policy on such billing and Carr's personal view on it.

A resident with city water service and a sewer pipe within 100 feet of the property but no connection is currently charged for sewer service based on the consumption of water purchased for that home's consumption, according to a policy set by the City Council.

"I personally believe that sewer fees for those residents who only have water service and have a sewer close enough for a tap should only pay the minimum monthly fee for sewer service, and not the sum of a bill that's based on water consumption," Carr said on Oct. 15. However, the city's water customers who are close enough for sewer service, but don't have a tap, are charged for sewer service based on their water consumption.

A recommendation to change that was sent to the City Council almost five years ago, but on Jan. 10, 2006, councilmen voted to continue to operate under the system of charges that exists today, Carr said in consultation with the department's consulting engineer.

Lowe, the persistent city resident and recurring speaker during the City Council's time to hear public comments at monthly meetings, told the council on Nov. 9 that he's no longer paying for the availability of sewer service based on his water consumption. Lowe has a septic tank.

"It got changed without the board voting on it," Lowe said. "They reduced my sewer to a minimum charge and it didn't go to the Council."

He contends water bill changes must be considered by the Council.

"There's just something inherently bad about this," Councilman Robin Minor said. "If you're not getting something, you shouldn't be charged."

Councilman Ronald McRady endorsed Mayor Barbara Woods' offer to "look into it."

Brenda Davis told the Council she and other residents on Sandy Street "chose not" to have sewer service.

"That was our God-given right," she said. "But they charged me and my husband $27.43" on a recent utility bill.

She alleged that years ago she was advised "to leave it alone or they will find something wrong with the septic tank...

"As far as I'm concerned, the water company owes us money."

Also speaking that night was Lewisburg Realtor Buddy Tankersley. He took his 30 years of experience to the podium to explain how subdivisions get approved and what happens after they're annexed.

"I don't think it's a can of worms," Tankersley said in a telephone interview on Monday. "I just think Bob Lowe found something that wasn't being done right, and he must have been right because they changed his rate. The council will just have to do what's right, and I think they will. It's just something that's slid by ... and nobody brought it up.

"They need to understand how they got into this situation and that's my only point," Tankersley said. "These subdivisions were put in before annexation and as long as they have a septic system that works, fine, but if it fails, you must either repair it or hook on" to the sewer.

Carr promised to make an announcement on when the utility will hold a public hearing on the $13 million sewage treatment plat project.

Other discussions on the subject reveal residents object to water rate hikes when it's the sewage treatment plant that must be expanded because of an agreement struck between the city and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.