published Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Sewer bills cause headaches for council


by Cliff Hightower
Council member Sally Robinson attends a meeting of the Chattanooga City Council in this file photo.
Council member Sally Robinson attends a meeting of the Chattanooga City Council in this file photo.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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The City Council voted 8-1 Tuesday night to defer for one week its vote on a resolution for a $100,000 contract with MWH Americas Inc. to set up a new stormwater and sewer authority. Councilwoman Deborah Scott voted against the resolution, saying the expenditure should be held up until a new mayor and council are elected. The council will have a chance to debate the contract again at its regularly scheduled meeting.

Service charges on the city's new sewer bills have left council members and administrators scrambling on how to deal with customer complaints.

Councilwoman Sally Robinson said Tuesday she's gotten an "unprecedented amount of complaints" about sewer bills.

She and other council members had a lengthy discussion about the sewer bill during a Public Works Committee meeting. Residents have complained loudly about the new bills, which include a variety of surcharges based on how they paid their bills.

If a customer tries to pay by phone or use an online option, fees are charged, residents said. Many have complained that sewer bills arrive just days before their due date, which does not give customers enough time to pay on time. Then, late fees are charged.

Steve Leach, administrator of the city's Department of Public Works, said Tuesday city officials had no clue there would be a variety of surcharges on the bill depending on how a customer paid.

"We weren't aware of this," Leach said.

Last year, Tennessee American Water told various municipalities it would not include sewer fees on its water bills.

The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Authority negotiated with a California-based company to bill for sewer services. The name of the company was unavailable Tuesday night.

"They negotiated the contract," Leach said. "We didn't."

Officials with the WWTA could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Robinson said the problem is with the water company.

Laura Vinson, spokeswoman for Tennessee American Water, said in a statement that the company provided the city "ample time" to find a vendor to bill for sewer services. Tennessee American also provided the city with a list of potential vendors. It was unclear Tuesday whether the firm selected was one of those suggested vendors.

"Tennessee American Water had no input in the procedures that individual municipalities use to implement their billing process," Vinson said.

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