Sohn: Flush the newest city-county turf war

Sohn: Flush the newest city-county turf war

March 31st, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Times Free Press A Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant equalization basin. / Staff file photo

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

It seems no one is happy with anyone in Hamilton County these days. At least not if the conversation is about sewage treatment and wastewater infrastructure in our 576-square-mile county.

County commissioners on Wednesday paused in their snipes and arguments just long enough to approve a resolution authorizing discussions between the county and the city over possible consolidation of wastewater treatment for the entire county.

That little c-word doesn't sound like much, but it marks a long-overdue, red-letter day. Perhaps we'll finally hash out whose stuff smells worse — city stuff or county stuff.

But please listen up: This is more about an efficient and adequate way to handle wastewater than it is about consolidating government services, despite the paranoia of some local elected officials.

The fractious road to get us to this important pro-growth decision began late last year and escalated in December when Hamilton County commissioners voted down a Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority proposal to build a new sewage treatment plant in Ooltewah — despite the fact that many of those same commissioners had approved a county-wide property tax increase the year before, in part to pay for a new treatment plant in the northern end of the county.

The rub in December was, and still is, where to put a new plant. No one wants a sewage treatment plant in their back yard. Commissioners became heroes when they bowed to NIMBY (not in my backyard) reactions over a WWTA plan to put a $45 million plant in the Mahan Gap community.

The vote, however, did not solve the problem of sewage overflows in Ooltewah, something one commissioner said can cost Hamilton County millions in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency penalties.

Nor did it solve the problem that many local developers are apoplectic over: an early November threat from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to slap a moratorium on sewer tap-ons after 29 overflows and 2 million gallons of spilled sewage in Rogers Creek. That meant, developers said, lost growth opportunities (i.e., lost profit) in building new homes in the northern end of the county — an area said to be in high demand among the new workers at the Volkswagen plant and its supplier companies.

County officials also are eager to see development because they know those well-heeled workers will build and buy affluent homes that swell the county's property tax coffers. Thus, on the heels of the "no" vote, County Mayor Jim Coppinger called one of the leaders of the plant's opposition, Dean Moorhouse, and asked him to head up a search committee for a new treatment plant site.

Moorhouse obliged and put together a stellar group. But the panel's work, now complete, further upsets the apple cart by finding — wisely — that the best site isn't in the county's WWTA jurisdiction. It's our existing regional Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant that belongs to the city of Chattanooga.

Moorhouse's group, which includes a retired TVA utility plant manager familiar with utility cost analyses, did an astounding amount of homework and concluded that WWTA should extend needed sewer line infrastructure and pumping stations and continue to use Moccasin Bend. That option would be as much as $6.3 million a year cheaper than building another sewage treatment plant, the group determined.

Moorhouse's group did not suggest the c-word. That came from past city and county officials — and now current ones who see this conversation as a good opportunity to look at efficiency in government. Think of the WWTA and Moccasin Bend as county schools and city schools, or the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department and the Chattanooga Police Department. In each case, one entity is county and one is city.

But make no mistake: While we like saving money, and we think consolidation is smart — across the board — neither we nor you should think the c-word is necessary to fix our sewage problem. Just as consolidating schools didn't require or lead to consolidated government, neither does mixing county sewage with city sewage.

The county — under the gun from EPA even in the 1990s — created WWTA in 1994 with the mission to repair and extend sewerage lines in small local cities and the rural areas of the county. Even then, those lines were expected to carry waste to Moccasin Bend, and the city utility would charge the smaller feeder cities, as well as the WWTA, for the amount of waste fed into the treatment plant.

Today, too, the fix — and our future growth — will not be halted if a new sewer plant isn't built. Nor will consolidation or the lack of it have any influence. And no, EPA doesn't care if Ooltewah's waste goes to a WWTA plant or to Moccasin Bend — just as long as it doesn't flow raw along the top of the ground and into local creeks and the Tennessee River.

The fix is really as simple as Moorhouse's group suggests: Extend the necessary infrastructure to carry sewage to Moccasin Bend — the 140 million-gallon-per-day regional sewage treatment plant that can treat twice the waste it handles today. Already the Bend treats waste from all of Chattanooga, Red Bank, portions of unincorporated Hamilton County, Soddy-Daisy, East Ridge, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain (Tennessee and Georgia), Rossville, Walker County, parts of Wildwood, Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold.

Does anyone really think Ooltewah will outgrow this region's entire footprint to leave us needing a second plant anytime soon? Not even the county and WWTA thought that, since they only wanted to make the Mahan Gap plant large enough to treat 10 million to 20 million gallons a day.

We mustn't let developers, bureaucrats or poorly prepared elected officials hoodwink us. We may need a lot of things that demand more of our money, but we don't need a new sewage plant.

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