Beyond the sewer costs

Beyond the sewer costs

April 5th, 2012 in Opinion Times

City and county leaders confirmed Tuesday that they are nearing agreements on separate legal consent decrees with state and federal environmental agencies officials that will require them to undertake broad, costly sanitary sewer upgrades countywide. They also confirmed that the city and county are facing the prospect of mandated moratoriums on housing, commercial and industrial growth to ensure they stick to the schedule for the required sewer improvements.

The huge scope and cost of these mandates, though not unique to our own local governments, should have been foreseen. They've been on the horizon for a decade and the subject of negotiations with regulatory agencies for several years.

But the fact that a serious countywide sewer improvement program hasn't been undertaken earlier -- and that it must now be initiated under the hammer of growth moratoriums just when a long-sought wave of economic development and job growth is underway -- speaks volumes about the fragmentation of local government. It reflects a lack of cohesive, responsible countywide growth planning, and it is the latest evidence, as if more were needed, for consolidation of essential countywide urban services under a charter county government.

The first step out of this mess is for municipal and county officials to agree on cost-efficient consolidation of the county's needlessly fragmented water and waste-water services. This isn't a city or a county problem alone, and it shouldn't be viewed as such.

The city's sewer treatment plant was built, largely with federal funds, to serve the entire county and nearby municipalities in north Georgia. Chattanooga's need to separate its sanitary sewer function from its old combined sewer and storm-water runoff system has long been recognized. Though the work could cost tens of millions of dollars, the appalling overflows of raw sewage when heavy rains swamp the city's combined sewers and treatment plant must finally be stopped for the plant to properly serve the larger community.

Equally important, and equally neglected, are needed remedies for the un-sewered portions of the county, and the failures of some other local municipalities -- i.e., Red Bank, Signal Mountain and East Ridge, among others -- to end their reliance on septic tanks and eliminate the seepage of e-coli and other harmful bacteria into local creeks and streams, all of which flow into the Tennessee River.

The build-out of sanitary sewers in the county's smaller municipalities now depends largely on separate agreements and bond funding between the municipalities and the county's WWTA. But its work in the unincorporated areas of the county is funded by bonds financed by the countywide tax base, which receives more than three-quarters of its receipts from Chattanooga taxpayers and businesses. The additional work of meeting the consent decree mandate, however, could cost upwards of $100 million over the next five to seven years. The looming question for the moment is how the WWTA will fund these improvements without unfairly shifting the bulk of the bond costs to Chattanooga.

One way to keep the WWTA's cost equitable to city taxpayers and businesses is to agree on a single countywide sewer tax, and turn all the sewer work over to the WWTA. Its charter is sufficient to handle countywide consolidation of sanitary sewer services and water utilities. But it needs to be backed by a county government with charter government powers, a vision for growth planning and consolidated urban services, and the willingness to establish an adequate countywide urban service tax rate to provide tax equity. So far, county commissioners have egregiously ignored such needs.

Consolidating control of the county's eight water utilities, moreover, is essential to plan for orderly growth and make the installation of urban-sized water and waste water pipelines more cost-efficient. That work should also fall under the WWTA. But, again, county government also would have to lead the agenda for consolidation of the county's fragmented water utilities.

Chattanooga's city government is best positioned to renew the quest for an eminent domain purchase of Tennessee-American Water Co.'s water utility here, but a joint effort with the WWTA would significantly aid that mission. Taking over the company would be well worth the legal fight.

The company's strong profits now are sent away to the company's corporate owner. Keeping those profits at home would help finance the required sewer work. It also would allow new efficiencies through the use of the EPB's smart grid system for combined meter reading, and through longer term growth planning. That's doubly important now, since TAWC and its parent company have just announced their intention to quit billing for municipal sewer services, which are set to rise across the county for mandated sewer improvements.

Ultimately, all the sewer work will benefit the community's larger growth and prosperity. Tax equity should be at is core, and it should foster additional consolidation of urban services.