published Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

South Pittsburg commissioners could dismantle water board

By Ryan Lewis/Correspondent

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. — City administrators are examining the possibility of eliminating the South Pittsburg Water & Gas Board, which oversees the operations of the town's utilities department.

"I think that department has gradually shifted away from the city when that whole department was created by city ordinance," said Mayor Mike Killian. "There have been discussions about abolishing that board, which is being done [by other towns] across the state."

The move comes on the heels of a state comptroller's report that Killian and city commissioners illegally transferred nearly $750,000 from the town's utilities department in 2010.

Last week, Killian accused the water board of "guerrilla warfare" against the city.

At the city commission's September meeting, Killian recommended that Commissioner Ronald Lancaster be appointed to the water board to fill an expired term. The board unanimously approved the move.

Killian said he wanted Lancaster on the board so the city could be "just a step or two away from abolishing" it.

There are some questions regarding what the water board can and cannot do and who ultimately is in charge of the utilities department, officials said.

City Attorney Tracy Wooden said he would need time to review the matter before he could clear up any questions.

"We may need some clarification there as to how we want to proceed," Killian said. "I think we are headed toward some changes there in some way. We don't have to take [the utilities department] over. It's already a department of the city."

Officials said the water board originally was in charge of hiring and firing utilities department employees, but a recent change in the city charter apparently gives that power back to the city commission.

"Without a doubt, it's up to the city whether to have the utility [department] run by a separate board," Wooden said. "That board is a separate board created by the city. That I can say for sure."

Killian said the water board has given its employees extra benefits in salary and retirement over the years that other city employees do not enjoy.

"There are things going on over there, quite frankly, that our employees are not allowed to do," he said.

Killian did not say how those differences eventually would be reconciled if the water board is dismantled.

Commissioner Charles Reynolds said he thinks the changes to the city charter make the water board pointless.

"That board is more of a recommendation board," he said. "It's an advisory board. All they can do is recommend to this board what they want to get done."

Killian didn't deny that city commissioners might terminate one or more employees with the utilities department if the city took full control over it, but said talk of firing employees was "putting the wagon before the horse."

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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