Hamilton County's sewer authority is improperly billing most of its 26,000 customers to make repairs of leaky pipes on private property, attorneys for an East Ridge apartment complex said Tuesday.
In a lawsuit seeking class action status and damages from the county sewer authority, American Heritage Apartments Inc. claims the $8 monthly fee added to each household by the Hamilton County Wastewater and Water Authority two years ago is illegal and should be refunded. The owners of the 151-unit complex complain that they must pay $14,496 a year extra in sewer fees to correct problems on other private properties, most of which are on wealthier portions of Signal Mountain.
"There is no water company in Tennessee, other than the WWTA, that is currently charging customers a fee to pay for repairs to private sewer lines owned by persons other than those paying the fee," Nashville attorney J. Gerard Stranch said in a lawsuit filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court.
The county wastewater authority claims the $8 monthly fee is needed to help pay for the inspection and repair of leaky or cracked private lateral sewer lines that overwhelm the county's sewer system during heavy rains.
"Even though these lines are privately owned, the WWTA has to regulate and inspect those lines and we have the right to tax our customers to help pay for the repairs that we have been ordered to make by the [Environmental Protection Agency] and the [Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation]," said Chris Clem, the attorney for Hamilton County's sewer authority.
"What do we do with those homeowners who are unable to pay for repairing their private service laterals and how do we force people to make these changes if they don't have the money?"
The county spends about $250 to $300 to conduct each of the smoke tests for leaks in the sewer lines that run between private residences and the main sewer line. Repairing faulty pipes along such private lateral lines typically costs from $3,000 to $5,000 for each household, Clem said.
The monthly fee spreads the costs of those repairs over all of the 26,000 customers hooked to the county sewer system.
Stranch said other utilities across Tennessee have similar problems with rain runoff leaking into sewer lines and overflowing sewage treatment facilities.
"Those utilities go out to the homes that are having the problem and say those people have 30 days to fix the problem or we're going to cut your water off," he said. "Why are we having to subsidize someone else who hasn't upgraded their water lines yet?"
With its aging clay pipes and rock foundations, Signal Mountain has a disproportionately large share of the homes with faulty private lateral service lines, according to the WWTA.
Clem said the authority estimates repairing all of the county's leaking private lateral lines could cost from $40 million to $50 million, well beyond what the fee generates. The WWTA is trying to test 300 lines a month to comply with state and federal pollution control mandates.
Clem said the sewer authority will probably have to find a way to borrow more money, raise the monthly fee or get an agreement with the regulators for more time to make all of the required repairs.
"What we can't allow to happen is for the regulators to put down an order for us to have to impose a moratorium on new development because that could shut off any new building in the affected areas and hurt our entire county," Clem said.
The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Authority serves most of East Ridge, Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy, Signal Mountain, Lookout Mountain, Lakesite, Ridgeside and parts of the unincorporated areas of the county.