Hard times leading to backlash on utility

Friday, August 26, 2011

Nearly 500 people could soon get water service because of two Marshall County pipeline projects with a combined cost of almost $2.12 million, the utility's superintendent said this week.

However, the Marshall County Public Utility District is finding itself in a quandary, Superintendent Tommy Whaley said Tuesday afternoon as federal officials were inspecting records for one of the projects.

"We've not been able to sell as many taps as we've been petitioned for," Whaley said of the project funded with a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Several years ago, county residents asked that water pipes be extended to where they live, but to proceed, utility system leaders must feel as though they'll be extending pipes to people who will pay for taps. Now, some folks can't afford to buy water taps.

"They lost their job, had to buy groceries, had to buy clothes," Whaley said of families that want water and would be served if they pay a tap fee. "It's not any one thing," Whaley said of the reasons he's received.

He'd been asked to cite a typical situation stopping the residents from going beyond payment of a $100 deposit months ago.

As for the price of the tap, he said, "We're holding it to $1,600 because they petitioned before..."

The applicable water tap fee increased to $2,000 after residents on the CDBG-funded water line project filed their petition. If too much time passes under the parameters of this project, then the utility must charge the $2,000 fee instead of $1,600, Whaley said.

"We've sent out letters this month saying that we'll be needing the tap fee," he said. Current customers and those who want to be customers of Marshall County Board of Public Utilities' water service are "working class people."

Whaley hopes the problem does not crop up when it's time for residents to tap onto the pipeline that was the subject of a preconstruction conference on Thursday.

Here's an overview of the two projects.

The project with construction that's about to begin "came in a few dollars cheaper than the CDBG project," the superintendent said.

That's "simply because the CDBG brings in the Davis-Bacon Act," he explained. That 1931 act of Congress requires wage payments to laborers at a dollar amount that's calculated through a formula to find the prevailing hourly wage in the area where federal money is being spent on a public works project.

However, Whaley sees the wages to be paid under the federal requirement as "maybe 10-15 percent higher than what you see in the general labor market" in Marshall County.

Hawkins & Price was hired for the so-called Highway 99 project. The Wartrace-based construction contractor will be following pipeline plans as designed by James C. Hailey & Co., Nashville. Hailey's representative was conferring with Hawkins & Price Thursday.

Pipe is to be laid generally west of Chapel Hill along Highway 99 and Pyles Road, as well as along Ball Lane and Harber Road to the south of Chapel Hill. The pipelines will, together, be about 7.5 miles long.

The engineer's cost estimate was at about $1.6 million, but the best bid was $929,828.20

Nearly 100 residences could be served by this pipeline, Whaley said. That's about 250 people, assuming an average household of 2-3 people.

Easements have been obtained already. That's a critical part of such projects and, if necessary, utilities can exercise their power of eminent domain, allowing a government taking of a utility right of way because a value would be set by the Chancery Court.

Construction for the Highway 99 project is expected to take a year.

The money is from the Rural Development offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The CDBG-funded project is frequently referred to as the Milltown project, largely because of the location on Milltown, McLean, Reynolds and Wilson School roads, and Anderson Lane in the vicinity of Milltown.

There are to be about nine miles of pipe installed by McMillan Construction of Franklin, the contractor.

A $103,000 grant from USDA's Rural Development office is combined with $500,000 from HUD and MCBPU is paying the balance of $585,254 of the project's cost of $1,188,254.

MCBPU is also planning to extend water service to the Clay Hill community near where wells became polluted with livestock waste.

"I've got a couple of issues that I'd like to get worked out" before construction starts, Whaley said. The most basic is where the pipeline should be installed. He's considering three routes.

Along Warner Road, the utility could offer water service to residents between Clay Hill and a water main. Furthermore, the terrain is not as rocky.

Clay Hill Road is another avenue toward the several homes with polluted wells, but it is a "very challenging road ... with bad rock and crevices," which increase costs, and there are fewer homes to serve along the way from a water main.

Starting the pipeline at Mt. Lebanon Road "will require us to upgrade water lines" and a couple of prospective customers might be served," Whaley said.