At yesterday's regular meeting of Morristown City Council's Finance Committee, several councilmembers grilled Wastewater Head Bryan Fowler about potential fines of up to $175,000 that have been levied against the City by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Division of Water Pollution Control.
Fowler provided the council with copies of the TDEC Commissioner's Order. The Order cites and alleges numerous violations by the City of the Water Quality Control Act (T.C.A. 69-3-101 et seq) which, among other requirements, limits the volume or strength of wastes discharged into waters of the state.
The Order apparently stems from a December 17, 2008, Compliance Evaluation Inspection at the Morristown Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Here are some excerpts from the Order:
Self-reported violations showed "numerous" overflows of the collection system.
During the monitoring period of January 1, 2008-February 28, 2009, the City reported violations of its wastewater permit, "including 56 self-reported overflow events. The overflows constitute unpermitted discharges of untreated wastewater."
In addition, the City reported that the influent flow meter was "out of service" during that entire period. "Failure to have an operational flow meter is a violation of the permit."
The City provided explanations for the discharge violations citing "mechanical failures, blockages in the lines, and grease as the primary causes of the dry weather overflows. Inflow and infiltration of storm water... (were) cited as the primary causes of wet weather overflows."
"To date the (inflow) meter is still not functioning."
Fowler stated that some of the findings were not accurate and would be appealed. Fowler said that the $175,000 in fines can be avoided if the City spends a lot of money to address the list of problems and comes into compliance in a timely manner.
Councilmember Bob Garrett commented: "They don't fine you $175,000 if you're doing a good job."
Fowler said that he needs more manpower and equipment in his budget.
Councilmember Kay Senter said that council doesn't control his budget and that rates (revenues) are supposed to be set to cover costs (expenditures).
Fowler said that he presents a budget but sometimes things get cut.
Senter said that we (council) don't cut anything and asked who made cuts.
Fowler said "People over me."
Who was "over" Fowler? Former City Administrator Jim Crumley.
When were sewer rates and the sewer budget set? In June 2009 after a cost and rate study and presentation by Lamar Dunn & Associates of Knoxville. Click here. That rate study provided for a 3-year rate increase. Now the question is whether rates will have to go up even more.
Frank McGuffin and Bob Garrett asked that City Attorney Dick Jessee work with Lamar Dunn in handling the appeal of the TDEC Order. McGuffin and Garrett also want Dunn to look at the TDEC Order, estimate the cost of rehabbing the system to come into compliance, and then inform the council about any additional rate increase that might be needed--over and above the rate increases that passed less than four months ago.
Some Councilmembers then peppered Fowler with variations of the famous two-part Watergate question: What did you know and when did you know it?
Fowler said that "we" had been anticipating this Order. No doubt this anticipation stemmed from the fact that Fowler and his boss Crumley knew of the self-reported violations from January 1, 2008, through February 28, 2009, and they knew about the deterioration of the sewer system downtown and on the west end with aging and crumbling concrete and clay pipe.
Why were problems cited in the TDEC Order not reported to council in a timely manner? Fowler said he was following the directions of the lawyers. Kay asked, what attorneys? City attorney Dick Jessee? Fowler said "we" have several lawyers due to lawsuits.
Crumley's legacy of keeping information from the Mayor and Council is gradually being exposed. Those who worked under Crumley and kept information from council have no cover. Hopefully, the new council will continue to be assertive, ask for information and reports on a regular basis, and watch out for the ratepayers who are the victims of this mess.
The recent (June 2009) three-year sewer increases were hard to take. If yesterday's predictions by councilmembers are accurate, it looks like even higher sewer fees are just around the corner as the real condition of the sewer system and its operations are revealed.