Within recent months, our wastewater bill in Hamilton County has risen, tripling our water bill in many cases. This is especially troubling with the job loss present during a global pandemic.
I have asked some of our local leaders, including Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd, why this increase has gone into effect. Many residents and even a local politician didn’t even know the bill had increased.
In 2015, the WWTA was described in a Chattanoogan.com article by Commissioner Boyd as “Hamilton County’s Worst Run Agency.” However, it seems there has been a change of heart. The following is Commissioner Boyd’s email attempt to explain in what he calls, “laymen’s terms” the reasons for the increase:
Commissioner Tim Boyd’s email response follows:
Just a small bit of background information:
The article you read referencing a quote was from several years ago and at the time when Cleveland Grimes (who died just before I released my report on the WWTA) was the director. He ran a very dysfunctional program and was the poorest individual so far as operating any type of reasonable customer relations with those serviced by the WWTA. Since Mr Grimes’ death there have been two directors, Mark Harrison and currently Mike Patrick. Both of these gentlemen inherited the impossible task of maintaining an aging and growing system while complying with the US EPA and TDEC clean water regulations all the while trying to keep the WWTA in a positive cash flow position without having to borrow money from Hamilton County general government. In my opinion both Mr Harrison and Mr Patrick have done a very good job directing and improving the WWTA.
The WWTA is an independent “self funded” arm of Hamilton County Government and charges fees, i.e. sewer fees, to pay for the services provided and pay the debt service on bonds issued for infrastructure improvements and expansion.
Over the past 30-40 years the various Hamilton County communities of East Ridge, Red Bank, Signal Mt., Soddy Daisy, and Lookout Mt sewer systems had been ignored by the elected officials who provided little to no funding for the maintenance of these systems. This resulted in literally hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance not unlike the deferred maintenance we all hear concerning our public school buildings except no one wants to talk about sewer systems.
As a result when the WWTA assumed responsibility for all of these sewer systems with all their associated problems they were told by the EPA to get them fixed ASAP. The “ASAP” has turned into the past twenty years with the EPA giving the WWTA more and more time to get things corrected. Well the EPA has waited long enough and literally this past October the EPA insisted the WWTA sign a “consent decree” forcing the WWTA to take significant action to correct the problems and on a very defined timeline.
I give you the above information so you more fully understand why your sewer bill keeps rising and will continue to rise at a double-digit rate over the next few years.
Hamilton County’s WWTA is not unique in having double-digit sewer rate increases. Just this week I was in central Pennsylvania and read an article in the local newspaper about how their sewer rates were increasing by 25%. I can only guess their rates increased for similar reasons to our own WWTA.
I now want you to consider the following;
1. It takes a lot more energy, equipment, man power and chemicals to treat raw sewage to the level of cleanliness required by EPA to discharge back into the river than it takes to take river water and make it suitable for drinking.
2. The WWTA does not have their own sewage treatment plant and are totally dependent upon the City of Chattanooga for the rates they must pay to the City for the treatment of the raw sewage the WWTA is sending to Moccasin Bend every day.
3. Due to the topography of our county, several pump/storage/transfer systems are needed to get the raw sewage from everyone’s house to Moccasin Bend from all over the county. Pump transfer systems are very high maintenance due to foreign material getting mixed in with the sewage and breaking the impellers of these very large and costly to repair pumps. The decisions made by your elected officials, i.e. the Commission, over the past fifteen years not allowing the WWTA to build its own treatment plant will continue to be an excessive cost burden on those households serviced by the WWTA.
I say all of this to let you know I understand the pain of ever increasing WWTA bills, but I also understand the finances and system issues associated with the reasons for the increases. This email will not ease the pain of your frustration with the ever increasing sewer rates, but now you have an idea as to the reasons why.
Addressing your specific questions;
1. Yes, there are flow meters throughout the system to monitor and help balance the flow of sewage to Moccasin Bend. These same flow meters can help diagnose problems such as pump failures and “uncontrolled releases”.
As I understand these meters do not measure rainfall. However one may be able to back calculate rainfall in a given catch basin area of the county.
Locations of flow meters are not generally made public due to possible vandalism.
Historical flow data could be requested through a “freedom of information” request submitted to the WWTA’s offices and the county attorney’s office.
2. I have not checked on rates by communities in recent years. When I did my study years ago East Ridge was not paying as much as Red Bank due to the Red Bank debt associated with their sewage system WWTA assumed when they took over the Red Bank system. The reason, as can be understood, Red Bank customers paid more was to pay the debt service on the existing bonds when the system was merged into the WWTA. If you like I can ask for the sewage rates across the entire system.
I trust this information helps you to understand a little more about the near impossible challenges the WWTA has before them and trying to keep sewage rates under control while managing a system needing to be much improved.
If you have further questions, please contact me.”
Commissioner Tim Boyd
So just to clarify, we will continue to pay increasing sewer fees that will be a “double digit rate over the next few years,” as Mr. Boyd stated. And there is nothing we as citizens can do about it?
The political blame game doesn’t change the fact that many Hamilton County residents are struggling with job loss and can barely pay their bills as it is. This is happening as WWTA and the politicians just seem to be okay with it.
–Jeff Irvin Jr., East Ridge Resident