Local water board seeks cost savings

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lewisburg's Water and Wastewater Board members on Thursday agreed to pursue billing cost savings and maintained their position on sewer rates when a customer pressed his point again on how fees for that service are calculated.

The Town of Cornersville has continued to provide billing services for the utilities after Lewisburg's Water and Sewer Department bought the system that was financially unstable in the wake of the town administrator's arrest, conviction and imprisonment.

Continuation of the town's billing service for Lewisburg's utility was described by city water Superintendent Kenneth Carr as financially unwise. Carr offered alternatives. One is for the city to collect. The other would be through an arrangement with a bank.

Reflecting on a similar chain of events, Carr reported banks did accept utility payments, and then they didn't, but some might still be a collection place for bill payments.

"The banks were generally very pleased when we stopped allowing payment there," Carr said, turning to members of the utility board for guidance.

"I really don't want to pay them anything, frankly," board member Gary Bolling said of Cornersville's collection service. "We've put a sack of money down there."

Indeed, there are more residents of Lewisburg than Bob Lowe, the man concerned about sewer bills, and Councilman Robin Minor who's questioned whether the city utility should have purchased the water system in Cornersville.

"Why don't you let me go down there and see what the banks want to do and report back to you next month?" Carr asked the board led by Councilman Hershel Davis.

A consensus seemed obvious: Carr should discuss the situation with the bank in Cornersville.

Meanwhile, Lowe's recurring question centers around the way sewer bills are calculated in Lewisburg. They're based on the volume of water usage on the premise that the water coming through a customer's water meter is the volume that's flushed or drained from the building.

It is a common method of billing and it is used here regardless of whether someone has irrigated their yard or garden, or filled a swimming pool, although there have been exceptions.

There's a one-time exception for customers with a swimming pool. Some residents have used water from a fire hydrant -- with a meter attached -- to irrigate grass and/or gardens, thereby avoiding their home's water meter and subsequent sewer fee. And, for a brief period, Lowe was exempted from paying his sewer bill apparently because of his complaints about the policy to bill homes where there's no connection to the sewer that's close enough for a tap.

The number of water customers who rely on a working septic tank, who have no sewer connection and pay a sewer bill (based on water usage) is very low, Carr said. That billing is imposed because the customer is paying for the availability of sewer service.

Other nearby towns require sewer connections even though a residence has a working septic tank, Carr has explained.

Other water utilities only charge a flat minimum sewer fee for availability of sewer service when a home is relying on a septic tank.

"Who do I need to get on about these rates?" Lowe asked when called upon during the water board meeting Thursday.

Changing the policy on how sewer bills are calculated must be by a vote of the city council, Lowe was told. The most recent change to the document with that policy was on Jan. 10, 2006, according to Carr.

There was a rate change a few months ago, but that decision by the council did not address the way sewer bills are calculated.

"They (councilmen and city employees at City Hall) send me to you all and then you send me to the council," Lowe said.

He was then reminded that the utility board voted last month to confirm its members' position that they support the system that charges for sewer service based on water consumption.

Lowe replied the board is basing its conclusion on an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General's Office.

"And case law," the utility's attorney, Dan Whitaker said.

Lowe countered by saying he'd spoken with City Attorney Steve Broadway, indicating that lawyer's interpretation was apparently supportive of the view that if a sewer fee is to be charged for availability of service that's not used, then it should be a flat minimum fee.

"I talked with him," Whitaker countered, referring to Broadway, "and he agreed with this board."

The utility board then turned to other business.

Early last month, Carr said Broadway and Whitaker were examining sewer-use ordinances adopted in 1974, '84, '91, '96 and 2006. 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.