Chattanooga: Mayor faces upstream swim to win over water districts

Chattanooga: Mayor faces upstream swim to win over water districts

May 3rd, 2009 by Matt Wilson in News

Convincing Hamilton County's water utility districts to agree to consolidation will prove difficult for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, some district officials said.

"We're a little bit reluctant to see somebody else take it and run it like we've seen some other things run," said Earl Moore, a member of the Sale Creek Utility District's board.

Still, Mr. Moore said his district and others wouldn't be averse to more collaboration among their systems, but the boards would like to stay independent.

One utility that may be completely open to consolidation is the one owned by the town of Signal Mountain, said Mayor Bill Lusk.

"We'd be extraordinarily interested," Mr. Lusk said. "We are all ears for any opportunity for reduced cost."

Signal Mountain buys its water from Tennessee-American Water Co.

In his April 20 inauguration speech, Mr. Littlefield set the goal of creating a regional water and sewer authority that would eliminate "unnecessary complexity and sometimes confusion about who provides service." He later cited Tennessee-American's attempt to serve Enterprise South - even though the industrial park sits in Eastside Utility District's service area - as an example of service overlap.

Hamilton County has 10 water utilities - eight local water districts with boards appointed by County Mayor Claude Ramsey, one private company and one owned by the city it serves, Signal Mountain.

Mr. Littlefield said recently at a meeting with the Times Free Press editorial board that the consolidation proposal would undoubtedly "cause people to be parochial."

"I hope that they'll look at the big picture," he said.

Mr. Littlefield said the county would be more attractive to businesses with a single authority with which all comers could deal.

Gene Huffine, general manager of Hixson Utility District, said combining all services would be hard because Hamilton County is so geographically diverse, with mountains and a river running right through the middle.

"Hamilton County's not one of these flat, uniform counties," he said. "You're not able to make everything uniform."

For those who enjoy serving on the boards of local utility districts, Mr. Littlefield noted that their terms will end eventually and that board members "more receptive to consolidation" could be appointed.

Mr. Ramsey said there are probably places to find efficiencies in the county's water service, but he had a more measured response than the city mayor when it came to the utility board members.

"We'll work with those boards," he said.

Mr. Huffine said he'd have to see "a detailed, broken-down plan" before considering a regional water authority.

"Let's see what develops," he said.

Likewise, Paul Parker, a member of Eastside Utility District's board, said he needs to see proof that consolidation could be effective.

"I believe it needs to be studied to determine the feasibility," he said.

Jim Gram, a member of the Soddy-Daisy Falling Water Utility District's board, said he doesn't see the efficiency in combining all the utilities. He said the current setup, in which an appointed board represents the utility's customers, is effective.

However, it might be worthwhile to look at some consolidation, Mr. Gram said. For example, the smallest utility district, Sale Creek, could be folded into one of the larger ones, he said.

Mr. Moore said the Soddy-Daisy district and Sale Creek share a manager and have connected systems.

But it would be hard to get all the utilities to hand over their authority, Mr. Gram argued.

"That has to be a voluntary giving up of the charter," he said.