This story was updated Feb. 27, 2019, at 6:43 p.m. with more information.
Several Hamilton County commissioners are hesitant to approve an additional $25 million requested by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger toward a new sewage treatment plant before a new site has been identified.
A resolution that would provide another $25 million on top of the $45 million already planned for the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority project was debated during the commission's Wednesday agenda session, but several commissioners were cautious about the urgency of the vote.
Commissioner Greg Martin, of District 3, said he would have a hard time voting for more funding without an identified site, and District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd said outright that he would not vote in favor of the resolution.
The additional funding needed for the plant, originally planned for Mahan Gap Road in Ooltewah, at an alternate site would require a tax increase in the next three to five years, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said, which Boyd called "absurd."
"This resolution to me is simply absurd. ... It is absurd because of the actions taken ... by this commission in December," Boyd said. "We made a bad decision, we don't need to be making another bad decision. ... This is fiscal irresponsibility at its highest."
Previously, the sewer authority sought a special permit to build the sewage plant in the Ooltewah area. It would have been part of a larger $200 million plan to update the county's sewer lines under a Clean Water Act mandate.
But officials were met with heavy pushback from Mahan Gap Road residents furious over what they said would be unsightly, smelly tanks that would lower their home values and diminish their quality of life.
Under pressure from the community, the commission denied the request from WWTA in a 6-3 vote in December.
Since then, Coppinger has been working with WWTA, which is scrambling to find a new site. He reminded the commission Wednesday that when the decision was made to move the site in December, the commission knew it could cost more money.
"WWTA and its board has agreed upon moving that site and in that presentation [in December] you saw it would cost from $16 [million] to $20 million," Coppinger said.
Treatment authority interim executive director Mike Patrick said the Mahan Gap Road location was the ideal site for the plant, and now they are considering about eight sites to find an acceptable alternative.
Patrick, who took over after former executive director Mark Harrison stepped down earlier this month, said WWTA anticipates similar community pushback from any neighborhood it identifies as a possible site for a new plant.
Boyd urged his fellow commissioners to reconsider the Mahan Gap Road location, despite the prior outcry.
"Growth has consequences, consequences is a lot of toilets and what goes down those toilets has to be handled," Boyd said. "We need to make decisions not for 200 families, but for 357,000-plus residents of Hamilton County."
He noted that Patrick, along with an outside engineering firm that conducted a study, identified the Mahan Gap location as the ideal site, and he called for WWTA and the community committee formed after a meeting last week to present an option that wouldn't cost the commission "a penny more."
Coppinger reminded the commissioners that they originally approved funding for a new sewage plant before a site was chosen and urged them not to continue to "kick the can down the road."
"We didn't have a site [then], what we knew is it was going to cost $45 million to build that plant," he said.
WWTA meets with the Environmental Protection Agency next week, and the mayor says the sewer authority needs to be able to tell the EPA that there's a plan to deal with the county's aging and negligent sewage infrastructure.
"We can ignore it, we can keep kicking it down the road, but we need to fix it," Coppinger said. "But in order to do that, and the reason this is time sensitive, is that has to be on the table for the committee to even discuss this, because they are going to need more money."
Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, of District 7, countered Coppinger, and said that the problem had developed long before current commissioners were in their seats. She requested price comparisons among building a new treatment plant, merging with the city's sewage system or a private buyout of WWTA before making a decision.
"That can has been kicked down the road, that's for sure, but that can's been kicked down the road a long time," she said. "It's hard not to be resentful at times. To find out our schools are $247 million behind in deferred maintenance, that our jail could possibly be shut down and it could cost up to $100,000 to build a new jail, and now this issue we're dealing with for our wastewater treatment site. I will not kick the can down the road. I'm willing to do what it takes to resolve all these issues."
The commission will vote on the resolution to grant another $25 million for the new plant at its next meeting March 6.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.