Signal Mountain gives residents chance to question councilors about water system sale

Signal Mountain gives residents chance to question councilors about water system sale

May 16th, 2018 by Emily Crisman in Community Signal Mountain

Two men work to put a new vent cap on a 250,000-gallon water holding tank for Town of Signal Mountain Public Utility in October 2017. The town is considering the sale of its water system and is holding a public input meeting on the topic Thursday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. (Staff file photo by Tim Barber)

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

The town of Signal Mountain is holding a public input meeting regarding the sale of its water system in the town gym Thursday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m.

The town council projects that for the town to maintain its aging water system, rates would need to be raised between 29.75 and 54.5 percent in order to add or repair pumps, pipes and storage tanks.

A study by local engineering firm Arcadis suggested the city will need to invest an estimated $3.7 million to address chronic system leaks in the Hidden Brook and Carriage Hill subdivisions.

Tennessee American Water, the town's wholesale water supplier since 1925, has proposed purchasing the system for $3.4 million, and has agreed to invest at least $1.25 million over the next five years to upgrade the system. Walden's Ridge Utility District, which provides water for many homes the town has annexed, has also offered to purchase the system. The public utility proposes to buy the system for $3.6 million and pledges to spend at least $2.6 million on system upgrades in the next five years.

Both utilities have agreed to keep rates the same for five years.

At Town Manager Boyd Veal's suggestion, the May 17 meeting will differ from the previous three public forums — in which councilors and citizens questioned the two companies proposing to buy the system — in that this meeting will allow citizens to directly question the council, Mayor Chris Howley said during a special called budget meeting May 8.

Though, Howley did wonder if it would be better to have the companies present in addition to the council.

"If we're questioned directly, we may just be hearing opinions and may not be able to answer some of the more strategic questions," he said, adding that the companies won't have an opportunity to defend themselves if citizens present negative opinions or information that may not be factual.

Councilman Dan Landrum requested that the meeting be postponed, as he will be out of town until June 1, but councilors decided to move forward, pointing out that three public forums had already been held.

"I'm not willing to wait," Howley responded. "I just think it's an attempt to slow the process."

However, they agreed that no decision would be made without Landrum present.

At the end of the May 17 meeting, the council will decide whether to hold another public meeting or move forward, said Howley.

"I'd like to toss out that you don't take an offer for something this high where someone just walks up and makes you an offer; you negotiate that offer," Landrum said. "That requires time, that requires research, and we're leaving money on the table if we do not do it that way.

"We are in no hurry. There's no rush for us to do this."

Howley said they would still be able to negotiate with both companies prior to making a decision without waiting three weeks until Landrum returns to hold the public input meeting.

"It's not fair to us and it's not fair to the companies," said Howley.

Councilors declined to state which way they planned to vote when Landrum asked if they'd reached a decision.

"We're about to make a big time negotiation," said Councilman Dick Gee. "Whatever negotiation tactic works in our favor, we need to employ that."

Once councilors reach a decision, it will go before the town's planning commission for review. The planning commission will make a non-binding recommendation to the council before it goes before the body again for a vote, said Veal.

The council will decide at its next work session how to proceed, which may include scheduling another public input meeting. The work session is Friday, May 25 beginning at 1 p.m. at town hall.

Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.