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Mike Carter - 29th District
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Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson

NASHVILLE — Two local legislators are looking for an emergency patch after a law they passed last year to dissolve Hamilton County's sewer authority by July 1, 2021, cost the agency access to loans.

State officials balked at approving some $13 million in new revolving loans for the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority because it wasn't clear what successor entity or local government would repay them if the WWTA went away.

"Someone in the attorney general's office put a stop on those" loans, said Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah. "We got notice the state revolving funds were not coming."

Carter and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said they thought the loan issue had been resolved last year with advice from some of the very same state officials raising concerns now.

Carter said Comptroller Justin Wilson's office and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation had given input on last year's WWTA bill.

Watson's bill to address the concerns and permit new loans from the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Program is scheduled for Senate floor action this afternoon. But Watson said he may delay a final vote to ensure a higher comfort level with the new language.

"I may hold it," Watson said, after clarifying the language over the weekend, "just to make sure everybody understands you can't walk away from these state funds."

WWTA owns and operates the public sewer system in the unincorporated areas of Hamilton County as well as the municipalities of East Ridge, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank, Ridgeside, Signal Mountain and Soddy-Daisy.

The agency took in the municipalities years ago and ever since has been working to address decades of neglect by replacing sewer lines and lateral lines from residences, businesses and other entities that hook into the system.

Currently, WWTA has some $10 million in outstanding loans from the revolving loan program that helps cities, counties, utility districts and water/wastewater authorities plan, design and build of wastewater facilities.

But WWTA officials are seeking an additional $13 million or so in low-interest loans to address immediate problems, mostly in municipalities, according to Carter and Watson. And that's the money state officials have been hesitant to approve because of the 2016 law change.

Carter said the loans are urgent in Collegedale, East Ridge and Signal Mountain to "avoid moratoriums." About $7.6 million is needed to improve capacity and end infiltration in East Ridge's sewer lines, he said.

Carter, who once served as WWTA's attorney, represents a number of unincorporated areas in the county. He has made no secret of his view that past WWTA administrations overreached by picking up other cities' sewer systems and thinks it would be more practical to have unincorporated areas in one entity and the former municipally owned areas in another one.

Watson has said his purpose has been to get WWTA to think through its mission. He said last year's law had the "potential" to dissolve the WWTA through a reorganization process.

Requests for comment from TDEC, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and WWTA Chairman Mike Moon were unsuccessful.

Chattanooga has its own sewer operation, although the city-owned Moccasin Bend Treatment Plant handles most of the sewage treatment throughout the county.

The city of Chattanooga is under a federal consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency over stormwater runoff problems.

The county sewer authority faces similar issues and fears similar EPA action.

One of Watson's amendments states that the WWTA would "sunset" by July 1, 2021, but only if "a successor entity or entities" have assumed, transferred or otherwise satisfied or retired the agency's bonds.

If that doesn't happen, the new language kicks the expiration date into a future when the bond and loan requirements are met.

Both WWTA and Chattanooga's sewer system were dealt a major economic blow in 2012. That's when investor-owned Tennessee American Water, which owns the water system that supplies much of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, dropped its decades-old practice of allowing both government entities to put their sewer charges on customers' water bills.

Both agencies' revenues plummeted from customers confused over the change or from scofflaws who refused to pay, with neither WWTA nor the city able to cut off their water for nonpayment of sewer charges.

Those issues have since been resolved, with Tennessee American eventually agreeing to cut off the flow of clean water to persons or entities not paying their sewer bills.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter @AndySher1.

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