The Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority sought the Hamilton County Commission's blessing Thursday for a last-minute purchasing exception that will allow the utility to contract with a consultant to create its own billing service.
WWTA lawyer Chris Clem said immediate action is necessary because Tennessee American Water notified the authority in January that it would stop billing for WWTA after more than 60 years.
A billing service must be in place by Oct. 31, Clem said. Commissioners granted the request but not before several of them criticized the authority's management and effectivenes and questioned the timing of the request, which was added to the agenda as a late item.
"You've waited from January to nearly April to get something like this started?" Commissioner Fred Skillern asked.
Clem said the utility has been in negotiations with Tennessee American, the state attorney general's office and the Tennessee Regulatory Authority since January.
"We didn't know we would need a consultant at that point," Clem said.
WWTA Executive Director Cleveland Grimes said the authority received oral notice about the possibility of the billing change as far back as October.
"Y'all are probably the worst managed group I've ever dealt with in government," Skillern said. "I've been through more than one problem at the WWTA."
Tennessee American Water President Deron Allen said after the meeting that officials from his company first met with Grimes on June 27 last year.
Keno Becton, a Tennessee American government affairs liaison, said, "There was no real concern before."
Allen said the water company is upgrading its billing software and won't be able to do third-party billing without great cost to its customers.
The water company is merely exercising a six-month escape clause in its contract with WWTA, Allen said.
Tennessee American currently charges the WWTA 40 cents per customer for billing, the price of which is controlled by a 1992 TRA tariff.
Tennessee American wants to charge about 54 cents per customer just to provide water use data necessary for billing to WWTA, Chattanooga and four North Georgia utilities and conduct cut-off services for customers who don't pay their bills, Clem said. The original proposal was to charge $1 per customer, Clem said after the meeting.
Clem told commissioners he thinks the water company will need to file a new tariff or seek permission from the state before it can discontinue billing for WWTA.
"TRA is under the impression that they do need to change our tariff before they can stop the billing," Clem said to commissioners.
While negotiations continue, WWTA and the other affected entities plan jointly to pay about $60,000 for an Atlanta-based consultant recommended by officials in Lexington, Ky., to locate billing services that can meet the WWTA needs.
"We can't even find anybody that does billing for utilities," Clem said.