Sunday, January 03, 2010

January 3, 2010 Sewer Neglect Catches Up with City--Expensive Testing, Expensive Repairs, and More Sewer Rate Increases Are Coming

Bad news about the city's sewer continued to unfold at last month's Finance Committee meeting on 12/10/09. While the exact dollar amount of testing and repair is not known, what is known is that more increases for ratepayers are just around the corner. Finance and council meetings really should be televised--then the public might actually know at least a little bit about what's going on in the City of Morristown.

In December, Lamar Dunn of Lamar Dunn & Associates presented his "Engineer Review." In the Review, Dunn addressed the state's fines, multiple directives to the City, and state timelines/deadlines for corrective action on a long list of sewer deficiencies. Dunn discussed sewer overflows, development and implementation of a capacity, collection, and treatment program for new sewer connections, development of a Comprehensive Management, Operations, and Maintenance Program, a CAP/ER action plan (including an analysis of the reliability of each pump station and a hydraulic model of the collection system) and annual progress reports to the state that begin in 2011 and continue until 2017.

Dunn's plan involves lengthy and expensive investigative testing of manholes and sewer lines as well as an action plan to address the findings and state concerns. Dunn's plan only addresses the Turkey Creek plant. Lowland was not discussed in December.

At the conclusion of his power-point presentation, Dunn mentioned that these state directives were the "unknown" regulatory issue and future "unknown" costs that he spoke to council about in June 2009 when sewer rates were hiked by 8% a year for the next three years. Dunn, apparently referring to his proposal to hike sewer rates by 14% the first year (click here), said that council adopted a "deficit" (sewer) budget in June 2009. Click here for that 11:00 am sewer rate meeting.

Dunn estimates that $828,000 would be required for manhole testing over a period of 467 days. The smoke testing is estimated at $1,007,424 over a period of 475 days. To pay for at least some of the testing, Dunn  thinks some money can be pulled from an already existing SRF (state revolving fund) loan.

A lot of these problems were apparently known back in 2006 and 2007.  Dunn mentioned a 2006 contract he had with the city where he outlined much of this work years ago. Councilmember Bob Garrett asked Bryan Fowler, head of wastewater for the city, why Dunn's study had been ignored. Fowler had no answer except  to say that the 2007 plan was "too costly" to implement so the city did nothing.   Fowler never said what the cost to fix the problems in 2007 would have been, and no one asked.

The testing is expensive, but it is only the tip of the sewer iceberg of neglect.  It is likely that there will be major costs associated with addressing the problems that are found through testing. Dunn predicted that the city will not know the full costs of the sewer problems or the full impact of those costs--another round of sewer rate increases--until 2012.  The city will then have to perform corrective work from 2012-2017.

The costs to take care of problems that were known but not addressed in 2007 was apparently HUGE. Now after additional years of neglect, sewer customers (residential and industrial) can get ready for another round of sewer rate increases--on top of the large increases just approved 6 months ago.

And woe be the customer who lives outside the city but is hooked to the sewer. Outside customers will  automatically pay twice every increase that is voted.  In this case, automatically=arbitrarily and capriciously. And illegally according to councilmember Bob Garrett and according to my research of this issue over a period of several years.

See Bob Garrett's comments here. Garrett, former head of the water department, knows that water and sewer rates have to be based on the cost of providing service, not just on some arbitrary "policy" of charging some customers twice as much as others. Water and sewer are fee-based services to customers. Taxpaying and non-taxpaying customers are to be treated alike unless there are specific cost differences for providing services to one group.

If it costs twice as much to serve outside customers, then a double fee is justified. The City, however, doesn't even attempt to provide a cost justification for double outside sewer rates because of these facts about its 140+ outside customers: 1) The sewer lines for the largest group of outside customers--about 50--were given to the city by the county as part of the county's Russellville Sewer project.  No cost to the city to extend lines there but those double fees are charged. 2) Many other outside customers simply hooked onto existing city lines. No cost to the city to extend lines there but those double fees are charged. 3) Many outside customers are actually closer to the treatment plant than a lot of inside customers. No or few additional costs to get outside sewage to the treatment plant but those double fees are charged.

Council's failure to provide any cost justification for double outside rates and council's failure to answer questions about its automatic double increases for outside customers were documented at the council meeting on July 7, 2009. Click here for a summary.

This is another of those issues that the local "news"paper (Citizen Tribune) will not tackle. Why? Well, the local reporter for the Tribune is Robert Moore.  Moore's employer is R. Jack Fishman, president of Lakeway Publishers, which owns the Tribune.  Fishman, wearing his City Industrial Board hat, recently asked the city council to provide money for the acquisition of additional land at the ETPC (East Tennessee Progress Center) at I-81. Fishman has also asked that the city use eminent domain to force the sale of any land that is not willingly sold by the owner.

Moore and the Trib can't and won't investigate the issue of arbitrary and illegal sewer rates and other city issues (like the transfer of $2.5 Million dollars from the sewer fund to the general fund without the required local or state authorization) because the end result would be to expose years and years of arbitrary and unjustified double sewer rates charged to outside customers by the Mayor and City Council.  Moore and Fishman and the Trib are more concerned with getting what THEY want than with a search for the truth about those 140+ "outside" sewer customers who automatically get charged double sewer rates by the city month after month, year after year.

I don't recall Moore and the Trib never reporting Bob Garrett's statements on the illegality of automatic double sewer rates. Wonder why? Apparently, personal conflicts of interest and political agendas cloud and compromise whatever journalistic integrity may exist at the Trib.

Do Moore and the Trib care about double sewer charges?  Do Moore and the Trib care that many of these double-charged customers are low-income households? If the Trib didn't put its own agenda in front of the needs of others, it would have Moore out making calls and investigating and getting information about this situation on behalf of a paper seeking to become a part of the solution instead of simply parroting those who make false statements or tell half-truths.

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