The sewage plant standoff between the county's wastewater treatment authority and Hamilton County commissioners has pretty much all involved scratching their heads over what to do next.
After commissioners in December denied a special permit for a new treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road, the sewer authority said it would defer any decision on a future site — and the money to pay for it – to the commission.
Instead, officials with the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority say they will work to expand capacity in their system, as well as those of Collegedale and Chattanooga, to cope with expected rapid growth and fix leaks and spills under a looming federal consent decree.
That will mean building storage tanks for wastewater and bigger lines to ship the waste to Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant from existing lines, as well as new ones expected to be needed in the fast-growing area.
But some public officials say the county would be better off if the Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority voted to sell itself to a private company, and a state representative who tried to dissolve the authority a few years ago hasn't ruled out doing the same thing this session to protect his constituents.
Ooltewah Republican Mike Carter's 2016 bill to dissolve the WWTA by 2021 passed but had to be undone in 2017 because it blocked the authority's access to state loans it uses to maintain and expand its system during its life.
Carter said he'll talk with other Hamilton County lawmakers soon "to discuss with them possible help and solutions to the problem, if there is a role for us to play."
"I'm 100 percent in favor of a facility, but 100 percent not in favor of it being located among the communities on Mahan Gap, and in the name of building new neighborhoods, destroying neighborhoods that now exist," he said. And he's not happy the authority is planning to spend $200 million on fixing what it has rather than expanding the system.
If the problems can't be resolved, he added, "sell it to someone and save $250 million of our credit rating."
County Commissioner Chester Bankston, whose district includes the proposed plant, has pushed for WWTA to be sold.
"We've got to get it fixed, we've got to have more sewer up here," said Bankston, who said he has talked to private operators interested in buying the authority. "If they can't do the job, they need to give it to somebody who can."
Tennessee American Water Co., which supplies Chattanooga's drinking water, has said it is interested if the WWTA decides to issue a request for proposals from potential buyers.
Others say the county needs to keep its own sewer authority to maintain control of sewer routes and rates.
"I just don't think that's the right way to go," said County Commissioner David Sharpe. "I think our growth should stay in the hands of Hamilton County. We should control our own destiny."
County Mayor Jim Coppinger called for "an open mind" on how to deal with wastewater but added, "It's an extremely critical and important decision if you are going to privatize such a valuable asset to the citizens of this county. It would obviously require a lot of conversation and a lot of consideration and input."
Both commissioners spoke to the Times Free Press in interviews last week. At Wednesday's county commission meeting, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor put a gag order on further discussion in that body.
When Commissioner Warren Mackey raised the topic of a new sewer plant, Taylor stopped him.
"I must respectfully ask the commission to forgo any discussion right now" of the WWTA, Taylor said. He briefed commissioners privately after the meeting but wouldn't say publicly why he told them to keep quiet. He didn't return a request for comment Thursday.
Bankston said Taylor told them that "WWTA's attorney said we were obstructing justice by talking about WWTA out in public and we were hindering them from getting their job done."
Bankston was referring to consent decree negotiations with the U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency, along with the state attorney general and Department of Environment and Conservation.
It's not clear whether the gag order will stop commissioners and WWTA officials from talking to each other. Both sides had said they wanted to search together for solutions to the sewage impasse.
All this uncertainty isn't helping a bit with WWTA's first-ever attempt to get a bond rating so it can finance up to $250 million for those required repairs, authority board member Bill McGriff told fellow board members this week.
Though he's confident the authority will get an investment-grade rating, meaning it can sell bonds at a reasonable interest rate, the controversy "creates an uncertainty," he said.
Board members were told Wednesday the authority has applied for $37 million in loans from the State Revolving Loan Fund for water projects, of which $14 million has been approved and $23 million more is under consideration.
WWTA executive director Mark Harrison said the authority has been working in the last few years to catch up on years of neglected maintenance and lack of capacity.
"We've got a good board, we're making incredible improvements in our organization and we're willing to continue making needed improvements based on positive, constructive input," he said.
WWTA board chairman Mike Moon said he has asked Carter to "clarify his position" on the authority.
"If state law gets changed [to sunset the authority], there is no way forward. We would have no financing capability," Moon said.
"For the board, our direction is to keep moving forward until we're told not to."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.