Even the possibility of increased sewer rates has East Ridge officials lashing out against the county's sewer authority and threatening to take back control of their sewer lines.
In a strongly worded news release issued Thursday, East Ridge officials said the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority "followed through on its threat" to raise rates "in retaliation" to the city's recent decision to charge the WWTA $200 for each cut it makes into the city's streets to repair sewer lines.
The city plans to start charging May 1.
At this point the WWTA has voted only to conduct a study that will help it determine whether it needs to increase East Ridge's rates, said WWTA attorney Chris Clem. No rates have yet been increased, he said.
"It's almost like East Ridge has declared war when we've only decided we're going to study this," said Clem.
WWTA board members said their vote to conduct the rate study was necessary after East Ridge's decision to levy the new fee, which could cost the sewer authority more than $1 million over the next three years.
Cities commonly charge such fees to utility companies and other private entities, but no other city in Hamilton County mandates such a fee for the WWTA.
East Ridge's lines need more repairs than any other lines in Hamilton County, according to the WWTA.
"We are going to go spend a disproportionate amount of money to go in there and to repair East Ridge's sewer lines, and they're going to charge us over $1 million to do it. It makes no sense," said Clem. "That extra million dollars has to be borne equally of Hamilton County customers, or it has to be borne just by East Ridge."
East Ridge officials say the fee is necessary to help cover future costs resulting from the looming sewer overhaul mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.
"They're going to decimate the roads in East Ridge," said City Manager Tim Gobble.
Gobble said he estimates that, over the next three years, the WWTA could be making 50 to 60 street cuts per mile in East Ridge streets. Those cuts will result in long-term, high-cost re-paving projects, he said.
In the news release, Mayor Brent Lambert said the $200 fee is "a long-standing ordinance on the books of the city," though the city only decided to start enforcing the ordinance for the WWTA after learning of the mandated overhaul.
Clem said the city is trying to be opportunistic on the backs of other county sewer customers.
"It's a shell game for East Ridge," Clem said. "This gives them a way they can raise revenue without admitting they're raising taxes. They don't care as long as they aren't blamed for it, and as long as they get the million dollars somehow."
Lambert and Gobble said it was too early to see how the city's new fee or a potential rate increase would affect next year's budget. Both said city leaders are toying with the idea of taking back over the sewer system, which they turned over to the WWTA in 2001.