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Hamilton County commissioners argued Wednesday about possibly consolidating sewage treatment operations with the city and the merits of a report produced by a citizen panel that reviewed alternative sites for a new treatment plant.

A resolution "authorizing discussions between members of the [county commission] and members of the Chattanooga City Council concerning the consolidation of wastewater treatment within the Hamilton County region," passed during the commission's recessed meeting on a 7-2 vote despite vehement opposition from Commissioners Tim Boyd and Greg Martin.

Mayor’s Site Search Committee Members

> Chester Bankston

> Dean Moorhouse

> Brent Smith

> Veronica Seaman

> Earl Burton

> Don Johnson

* One member’s name has not been released

 

After a presentation from Dean Moorhouse, chairman of the Mayor's Search Committee, that mirrored information the seven-member panel gave the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority on Monday, Martin moved to defer the conversation. He said he and other commissioners needed to "stay in [their] lane." The committee was set up after the commission voted down a new Mahan Gap Road sewage plant in Ooltewah in December.

In a 10-page report, the panel concluded that continuing to use the city's sewer plant on Moccasin Bend would be as much as $6.3 million a year cheaper than the cost of building another sewage treatment plant. Building wastewater storage tanks and installing sewer lines to connect to Moccasin Bend are better alternatives than trying to find a site for a new treatment facility, the panel said.

Boyd questioned the purpose of the resolution.

"What is the intent of this resolution?" he asked. "Is the intent to conclude that WWTA be dissolved and combined with Moccasin Bend and have the city control the economic growth of the county? Which is exactly why the WWTA was created many, many, many years ago?"

He characterized the citizens' report as "probably the most disingenuous, hypocritical, biased document I've ever read as a commissioner."

Boyd argued that it isn't within the purview of the commission to move in such a direction and that any committee created jointly between the city and the county would come to a conclusion in the city's favor.

"Any joint committee between the city and anything that the county forms, I guarantee you that the city will conclude that it needs to take over," he added.

Boyd also accused Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley and City Councilman Chip Henderson of already engaging in discussions about combining the sewage system — and metropolitan government, something Smedley called "far-fetched."

"In terms of metro government, it's far-fetched to give that kind of implication when were talking about sewage services," she said. "I think we should be having these conversations, if consolidation would be a key way now to keep costs down and to keep things efficient now, why would we not be exploring that?"

Smedley said she agreed with Commissioner Katherlyn Jeter that the commission has been presented only with one option so far and needed more information and options to vote confidently on whether, and where, to build a new plant.

Commissioner Chip Baker said he felt the committee's recommendation gave the commission enough background information to proceed with discussions with the city about the continued use of Moccasin Bend, but he also agreed that commissioners need more information.

The report "gives us plenty of background for us as to why we'd be meeting with the City Council," he said.

Unlike Boyd's clear disapproval of the potential to consolidate, Martin argued to defer the vote to next week's regular session because commissioners had received the resolution only Tuesday night.

"Wouldn't it be wise for us to maybe take a week and read this resolution rather than getting it right here and in a few hours to vote on it?" Martin asked.

In response, Smedley said said she was prepared to vote because she had "done her homework."

"I am guilty as charged in doing my homework and asking that every option be vetted," she said. "If it's going on in Hamilton County, as a Hamilton County commissioner, I'm in my lane."

The next steps for those conversations are unclear, as they were not laid out in the resolution.

Smedley said immediate next steps would depend on the city council's own resolution that mirrors the county's and whether the council members also would like to engage in discussions.

Henderson asked the city attorney last week to make preparations for a benefit analysis for a potential combination of the city sewer system and the WWTA, which both the city and county would have to approve.

If the city's resolution passes, Smedley said, they would have to appoint someone to oversee such an analysis and iron out the details of what else they'd like to consider.

Tensions among commissioners remained high as they also debated a resolution expressing disapproval of Gov. Bill Lee's education savings account bill (House bill 939), which the House Education Committee passed on Wednesday.

Commissioner David Sharpe proposed the resolution. He said the Hamilton County Board of Education voted 7-1 last year against ESAs and vouchers and called the bill "disingenuous."

"I think this is important for us to address today as the future of education in Hamilton County and in Tennessee today is in the balance," Sharpe said.

"This bill leaves too much in the balance with the potential for waste, fraud and abuse. Vouchers have been proven to not improve outcomes, and I have a real concern for our students. I implore you all to support the passage of this resolution."

Martin again said he could not vote on such a resolution because he hadn't had enough time to research the bill. A motion to defer the vote failed, but so did the actual resolution after five commissioners — Baker, Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Martin and Smedley — abstained from the vote.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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