Potential water department takeover leads to formation of grass-roots group

Potential water department takeover leads to formation of grass-roots group

March 7th, 2018 by Myron Madden in Community Signal Mountain

"Be Vocal. Choose Local." co-chairs Eugenia Allderdice and Dave Evans advocate for Walden's Ridge Utility District during a meeting Feb. 22. Members of the citizen committee hope to convince Signal Mountain officials to choose local in the imminent sale of its aging water system. (Staff photo by Myron Madden)

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Walden's Ridge Utility District had previously only expressed interest in managing Signal Mountain's water system. WRUD had expressed interest in both buying or managing the system. The earlier version also incorrectly stated that WRUD had pledged not to impose any rate increases for at least five years if it acquired the system. No such claims have been made.

Walden's Ridge Utility District, which is headquartered on Signal Mountain. (Staff photo by Myron Madden)

Walden's Ridge Utility District, which is headquartered on...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Eugenia Allderdice recalls the day she came home to find an "enormous" water bill waiting for her less than 12 hours before she and her husband were scheduled to fly out of the country.

The Signal Mountain woman immediately called the town's water utility department, and the customer service operator promised to send someone the following day to look for a leak. When Allderdice explained that she would be overseas, the operator surprised her by accelerating the timetable and sending someone to her location right then.

"That's what being local is," said Allderdice, co-chair of Signal Mountain citizen advocacy group "Be Vocal. Choose Local."

She and the fellow residents who make up the 25-member committee are urging Signal Mountain Town Council members to keep that message in mind as they plan their next steps for the future of the town's water system.

On Monday, March 12, Signal Mountain officials will finally hear proposals from the two companies interested in acquiring the town's water department: Tennessee American Water Company and Walden's Ridge Utility District.

Residents have been waiting for movement on the matter since the town issued a request for proposals in May, though the conversation has been ongoing among community members since 2015, when representatives from Tennessee American said they would be open to buying or managing the water system. WRUD has also expressed interest in buying or managing the water system.

"Be Vocal. Choose Local." was formed in the wake of the council's decision to release a request for proposals in May. The citizen group hopes to persuade town officials to accept WRUD's offer as opposed to Tennessee American's by encouraging residents to take action.

While members of the citizen committee have endorsed WRUD for its ability to provide local control and allow easier access to utility representatives, committee co-chair Dave Evans said he is also backing the local utility provider because of its superior water quality.

He pointed to a 2016 water quality report released by Tennessee American, which indicated that its water had a trihalomethane level of 73 parts per billion. THMs are chemicals created when chlorine is used to disinfect drinking water. According to the report, people who drink water with THMs over the maximum contaminant level set by the Environmental Protection Agency could develop liver or kidney problems over time or have an increased risk of cancer. The maximum contaminant level is 80 ppb.

Comparatively, Hixson Utility District, which provides water to WRUD, indicated in its 2016 report that its water had a THM level of 8.83 ppb.

"If you were going into a store to buy a bottle of water and you saw one was 12 percent below the maximum carcinogenic level, would you buy it when you could buy something that's just a small fraction of that?" Evans asked. "I think the answer is pretty obvious."

Allderdice further discourages against selling the water system to Tennessee American because of experiences heard from neighboring residents in Lone Oak and Walden. WRUD, she notes, severed its agreement with TAW in 2011, citing rate increases imposed without consulting utility district officials or giving them any input or negotiating power, as was guaranteed in their contract.

Tennessee American officials said they were simply handing down mandatory increases imposed by the Tennessee Public Utility Commission, which sets the rates and service standards for privately owned telephone, natural gas, electric and water utilities.

Despite its two offers, Signal Mountain also has the option to retain the water system and continue operating the utility itself, though Town Manager Boyd Veal has said that decision would come with significant changes, like an increase in rates.

As of right now, the town has tentatively set aside a three-week window during which to host public meetings: March 14-April 4.

During these meetings, citizens will have a chance to question representatives from both companies at the same time, should both contenders be willing to participate, town officials said.

After they review the proposals, council members are expected to decide how the public meetings should be structured and set concrete dates for each session.

Email Myron Madden at mmadden@timesfreepress.com.

Updated at 12:02 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, 2018.