published Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Beyond the sewer costs

City and county leaders confirmed Tuesday that they are nearing agreements on separate legal consent decrees with state and federal environmental agencies officials that will require them to undertake broad, costly sanitary sewer upgrades countywide. They also confirmed that the city and county are facing the prospect of mandated moratoriums on housing, commercial and industrial growth to ensure they stick to the schedule for the required sewer improvements.

The huge scope and cost of these mandates, though not unique to our own local governments, should have been foreseen. They've been on the horizon for a decade and the subject of negotiations with regulatory agencies for several years.

But the fact that a serious countywide sewer improvement program hasn't been undertaken earlier -- and that it must now be initiated under the hammer of growth moratoriums just when a long-sought wave of economic development and job growth is underway -- speaks volumes about the fragmentation of local government. It reflects a lack of cohesive, responsible countywide growth planning, and it is the latest evidence, as if more were needed, for consolidation of essential countywide urban services under a charter county government.

The first step out of this mess is for municipal and county officials to agree on cost-efficient consolidation of the county's needlessly fragmented water and waste-water services. This isn't a city or a county problem alone, and it shouldn't be viewed as such.

The city's sewer treatment plant was built, largely with federal funds, to serve the entire county and nearby municipalities in north Georgia. Chattanooga's need to separate its sanitary sewer function from its old combined sewer and storm-water runoff system has long been recognized. Though the work could cost tens of millions of dollars, the appalling overflows of raw sewage when heavy rains swamp the city's combined sewers and treatment plant must finally be stopped for the plant to properly serve the larger community.

Equally important, and equally neglected, are needed remedies for the un-sewered portions of the county, and the failures of some other local municipalities -- i.e., Red Bank, Signal Mountain and East Ridge, among others -- to end their reliance on septic tanks and eliminate the seepage of e-coli and other harmful bacteria into local creeks and streams, all of which flow into the Tennessee River.

The build-out of sanitary sewers in the county's smaller municipalities now depends largely on separate agreements and bond funding between the municipalities and the county's WWTA. But its work in the unincorporated areas of the county is funded by bonds financed by the countywide tax base, which receives more than three-quarters of its receipts from Chattanooga taxpayers and businesses. The additional work of meeting the consent decree mandate, however, could cost upwards of $100 million over the next five to seven years. The looming question for the moment is how the WWTA will fund these improvements without unfairly shifting the bulk of the bond costs to Chattanooga.

One way to keep the WWTA's cost equitable to city taxpayers and businesses is to agree on a single countywide sewer tax, and turn all the sewer work over to the WWTA. Its charter is sufficient to handle countywide consolidation of sanitary sewer services and water utilities. But it needs to be backed by a county government with charter government powers, a vision for growth planning and consolidated urban services, and the willingness to establish an adequate countywide urban service tax rate to provide tax equity. So far, county commissioners have egregiously ignored such needs.

Consolidating control of the county's eight water utilities, moreover, is essential to plan for orderly growth and make the installation of urban-sized water and waste water pipelines more cost-efficient. That work should also fall under the WWTA. But, again, county government also would have to lead the agenda for consolidation of the county's fragmented water utilities.

Chattanooga's city government is best positioned to renew the quest for an eminent domain purchase of Tennessee-American Water Co.'s water utility here, but a joint effort with the WWTA would significantly aid that mission. Taking over the company would be well worth the legal fight.

The company's strong profits now are sent away to the company's corporate owner. Keeping those profits at home would help finance the required sewer work. It also would allow new efficiencies through the use of the EPB's smart grid system for combined meter reading, and through longer term growth planning. That's doubly important now, since TAWC and its parent company have just announced their intention to quit billing for municipal sewer services, which are set to rise across the county for mandated sewer improvements.

Ultimately, all the sewer work will benefit the community's larger growth and prosperity. Tax equity should be at is core, and it should foster additional consolidation of urban services.

4
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joneses said...

Typical liberal point of view, never pass on an opportunity to raise taxes. Why did the author of this tax and spend article not state when the sewer lines are repaired the tax should go away?

April 5, 2012 at 6:24 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

I would like for you to check your facts and cite the street address of any unsewered portion of East Ridge.

Where is it?

The reality is that East Ridge does what the City of Chattanooga does not: routinely upgrade its stormwater and sewer systems.

Chattanooga's approach? To only maintenance the systems at addresses where residents complain. If you don't complain, you don't get it fixed. That's what decades of El Cheapo Republican Mayors have brought you. Enjoy your leak.

If you do want to find someone who is on septic tanks who should not be, look for a McMansion sitting on what used to be farmland ten years ago. Large swaths of rapidly developed rural areas typically have this problem. They were not listed by name in your editorial.

Any area of fast real estate development is most likely to outpace civil support structures like sewers because initial sellers want to make their sale with the highest profits at the lowest taxes. Utility installation costs cause a rise in tax rates.

As long as the new owner's wife can see electricity and internet and cable TV, they often assume all services are okay. Just put in the glitzy ones that shine, and they'll buy. Then the new homeowners learn about utility problems that go beyond their own land. They will often take no action unless required to by their government.

Mayor Ron Littlefield and his like have encouraged that kind of behavior because they love land deals.

Pop a manhole sometime. You might get an education. When you do, you will see why I advocate having every city and county executive take a 10 manhole field trip through their area of responsibility.

The worst sewers I've seen were not in the areas you cited: they were in North Georgia. Rossville and areas like it constructed their systems, often by hand with unskilled labor, at a time when there were few construction standards for sewers.

There mere presence of standardized, reinforced concrete boxes for manholes and drains can help to date the construction of sewer and stormwater systems at a glance.

I take it you did zero research for this editorial.

Go out to Amnicola Highway and get someone who knows what they are doing to pop a manhole for you on the sewer line that parallels the Tennessee River. It runs so much sewage it is its own river. It flows with lethal force between the highway and the river's edge. One look at that will give you an idea of just why you need to constantly maintain and upgrade those systems.

Those same systems have been largely ignored under Mayor Ron Littlefield. The decision to not pay attention to these essential hydraulic systems has been yet another example of his mind-blowing stupidity.

April 5, 2012 at 7:19 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

Stroll on out there to what used to be farmland by the mall and look around. Do you see sanitary sewer manholes there? Do you see stormwater drains with a distinct, concrete reinforced structure?

Or do you see new residential homes stacked on top of land in the name of a short view of profit?

As long as a prospective buyer can flush the toilet and turn on a light: that's their typical utility inspection. The reality is that those systems go far beyond one person's land. Narrow concerns do not.

Until people wake up and realize that they are one part of a larger system, and until they see that system, they will not recognize how important it is for them to do their share.

Many of these landowners and mortgage holders probably think that the tax is another bill. They may have no idea where their pipes run. They may not realize which manhole their own sewer line runs to, until there is a problem.

I would bet blindfolded that most of our city and county leaders have little or no idea of the scope, condition, and location of the critical parts of our infrastructure. If they can't see it from their SUV or armchair, they stop looking.

Part of the reason why we can see the factual errors in the editorial above is because we know we can see the sewer manholes in those communities you tried to accuse of being on septic tanks. Maybe you might have a tiny minority of homes that were grandfathered in from before 1950 which have not been updated. The reality is that an overwhelming majority of those communities has city sewer access.

Population density, not age or location, determines the need for sanitary sewer infrastructure. Since areas are often becoming more concentrated, that is why these structures need upgrading after their initial installation. Since no system is maintenance free, a system like sewers in constant use by thousands of people will often need constant maintenance.

Get out of the office and look in a manhole sometime.

A newspaper might actually send a reporter and a photographer to do a story on it once.

April 5, 2012 at 7:49 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

Here are some critical questions I think you should have asked before pointing the finger at communities in our area:

  • When was the system installed?

  • To what capacity and standard was it designed?

  • How has the population density changed since then?

  • How often and to what capacity has the system been upgraded as the population density for the area changed?

Some places to look for inadequate sewers include:

  • Downtown Chattanooga areas with system sections over 50 years old

  • East Brainerd farmland developed into residences and commercial real estate

  • Soddy Daisy and Apison and the semi-rural areas around them

  • Any "new subdivision"; farmland marketed as new residential housing

  • Any place with homes less than ten years old selling for over $100K with no manholes on the street.

The cold reality of the sewer and stormwater problem is that more people flock to cities in Tennessee since the 1950s, when our state was largely farmland. As population density increases, so does the need for civil support systems like sewers.

How well the ground percs may vary over an area; but, it does not vary enough to suppose that an acre or two of land will adequately meet the needs of a family of four for 20 years; not when there will be an entire neighborhood of that density or higher.

Meanwhile, politicians will be loathe to tell residents that they have to pay their taxes. Instead, they focus on the other half of the matter: that urban areas promote commerce. So, we end up trapped in a cycle of having everyone pile on the cities to get money; but, no one wants to pay for the supporting services. Meanwhile, we see the need for those services increasing daily. Then, we make no counter-acting effort to promote commerce in rural counties in our state. Instead, residents will try to live away from others enough to keep it cheap, but commute to where the money is; thus, they both spread and intensify the need for civil services as they go. So, we are always raising the bill and refusing to face up to the idea of paying it.

It's not "East Ridge" and "Red Bank" that are the cause of sewer costs. It's the behavior of the entire population. Particularly, population samples that insist on moving to the "nice, new" dwellings in the suburbs while commuting to a place in the city where they can get money to keep their wives.

Sprawl, not communities you don't like, are a part of the sewer problem. Not facing up to the bill for decades, under Mayors Corker, Ramsey, and Littlefield, hasn't helped, either.

April 5, 2012 at 8:50 a.m.
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