published Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Chattanooga area cities gear up for sewage billing

Jerry Stewart, director of waste resources for the City of Chattanooga, stands in front of a primary clarifier in this file photo.
Jerry Stewart, director of waste resources for the City of Chattanooga, stands in front of a primary clarifier in this file photo.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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Area cities are moving forward with plans to take over sewage billing since Tennessee American Water has opted to stop offering the service on Oct. 31 after providing it for 60 years.

About 60,000 sewer customers in Chattanooga; East Ridge; Red Bank; Lookout Mountain, Tenn.; and Rossville can expect their sewage bills to increase -- though it's not yet clear by how much.

A handful of potential vendors responded to a request for proposals to handle the sewage billing for Chattanooga, Rossville and the other cities, which belong to the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority.

"We're working together to select a vendor," said Jerry Stewart, Chattanooga's director of waste services. "We're in the final stages of making a selection."

Tennessee American Water had been charging 40.5 cents per month per customer for sewage billing since 1992 before deciding last June to get out of the third-party billing business.

"We were doing it for [less than] what the true cost was," Government Affairs Manager Kino Becton said. "We weren't making any money out of it."

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has said that customers' monthly sewage bill could increase by $3 once the switch takes place.

The logic behind having a water company do sewage billing is that there's a fairly direct correlation between how much water a customer uses and how much goes down the drain.

For public health reasons, it's not legal to shut off someone's sewer service when they don't pay a bill. Instead, sewage agencies have the option of shutting off a debtor's water.

Area sewage agency officials were concerned that decoupling the water and sewage bills would remove this enforcement ability.

"We met those concerns," Becton said. "We actually went back to the table after hearing those concerns."

Additionally, in its most recent session, the Georgia Legislature passed a law that gives a private water supplier five days to suspend water supply to customers that haven't paid their sewage bill.

The Rossville City Council was going to sign an interlocal agreement at its meeting Monday night to participate in the sewer billing agreement. The Chattanooga City Council was scheduled to sign the interlocal agreement today.

"We're going to piggyback on whatever they [Chattanooga] do," Rossville Mayor Teddy Harris said Monday afternoon.

Tennessee American Water is a division of the American Water Works Co. Inc., a private company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. American Water Works had revenue of $2.7 billion in 2010 and has 15 million customers in 30 states and Canada.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a townshipÂąs government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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