published Monday, December 10th, 2012

Chattanooga building authority; no one is buying


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Chattanooga will hold a public hearing on establishing its new regional wastewater authority at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the City Council building.

Ron Littlefield is starting small, but thinking big.

This week, the Chattanooga mayor will stand up and try to sell the people on his latest idea -- a wastewater authority that eventually could include surrounding water utilities in Hamilton County and North Georgia.

"It will be more cost effective," he said.

But some of the utilities that Littlefield would like to participate aren't buying into his idea.

"We don't plan on joining them," said Don Stafford, general manager of Eastside Utility District. "What's wrong with the way we're running it?"

Littlefield's latest proposal is to consolidate the city's stormwater and sewer departments into a quasi-governmental agency. He is patterning his idea after other authorities before it -- the Airport Authority and EPB.

The mayor says he is setting the authority up in hopes that other, similar utilities will join -- he points specifically to the Hamilton County Wastewater and Water Treatment Authority, Eastside Utility District and the other half-dozen water utilities throughout Hamilton County.

The idea is to combine forces to help curb future costs and limit sewer and water rate hikes. A united body that eliminates duplication and uses the same resources could mean smaller increases for ratepayers, he said.

But Stafford said he doesn't necessarily believe in that idea because his area spans a 60-mile radius already. And he doesn't think the publicly owned company could join with a city-formed authority because of legal ramifications.

He said Eastside Utility also provides rural water and receives federal loans to help put water lines into rural areas. Stafford said the water utility might not be able to qualify for the loans under the city-formed authority.

A spokesman for Tennessee American Water, the privately owned utility that provides Chattanooga's water, said the company would not give up its private status to join the authority.

"We're not interested in that at all," spokesman Kino Becton said, though he added Tennessee-American would be more than happy to assist the authority.

WWTA Executive Director Cleveland Grimes and board Chairman Ed Watt did not return calls seeking comment.

Littlefield maintains the county sewer provider may have to join the authority at some point because of problems it has with state legislation forcing the authority to repair lines that go from homes to the main sewer line.

"They're in a position where something is going to have to happen," he said.

Littlefield admitted he has not contacted any of the other water utilities and has spoken only briefly to WWTA officials. He said it will be a project for the next mayor to continue.

"We're simply just breaking it out of government," he said.

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