MOUNT CARMEL – Mount Carmel leaders don't know how much an impending repair of the sewer treatment system will cost, but city administrator Mike Housewright told the Times News Tuesday he doesn't anticipate a rate increase to pay for it.
Last Thursday the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 4-2 to authorize a $25,000 study on the sewer treatment plant by the engineering firm of Vaughn and Melton.
That study will not only provide the city with a plan for maintenance and repairs that are needed immediately, but also a plan for the city to follow with regards to sewer plant upkeep for the next 10-15 years.
Mount Carmel's sewer plant is already a sore spot for Mount Carmel residents who pay among the highest rates in the state.
Of the 178 sewer systems in Tennessee, Mount Carmel had the 17th highest sewer rate in Tennessee, and the highest rate in Northeast Tennessee, for 5,000 gallon usage at $40.75, according to a Tennessee water and sewer rate survey.
At least $1 million in repairs ASAP
Based on a quick walk-through of the treatment plant, Vaughn and Melton reportedly told the city it's looking at at least $1 million in repairs ASAP just to keep the plant in state compliance.
The study is expected to take four to six month, after which Mount Carmel will have a better estimate on how much it's going to cost.
Aldermen Jim Gilliam and Carl Wolfe voted against the study.
Gilliam's expressed concern about the potential cost of repairs and state Vaughn and Melton are “in here strictly to make money. I'm in here to save money.”
Wolfe said he objects to the city taking on new debt to make the sewer plant repairs.
Substantial sewer debt recently retired
Fortunately, Mount Carmel has retired a substantial amount of debt in its sewer department in the past two years.
Housewright told the Times News Tuesday he anticipates seeking a low interest loan through the state revolving loan fund which is administered through the USDA.
One of the requirements of that type of loan is the study Vaughn and Melton will be conducting.
“We have retired a substantial amount of debt over the past couple of years, so it's quite possible we could take out a note without ever having to touch the rates,” Housewright said. “We just retired a note last year in our sewer account that we were paying somewhere in the vicinity of $150,000 per year.”
Sewer plant debt is inevitable
“If we're going to run a sewer plant, the reality is we're going to have to have debt,” Housewright said. “We can take out this long term note and fund these repairs and these upgrades that we're talking about. The truth of the matter is about the time this new debt is paid off in the future, it's probably going to be time for another round of major upgrades and repairs. That, in turn, will likely have to be funded by debt as well. We've got no choice.”
What's wrong with the sewer plant
According to Housewright, several years ago a part of the sewer plant broke down that removed solids from the waste when it first comes in. The first step in the filtration process has been offline ever since.
“That has been broken down long before I ever got here, and I'm not sure anybody in the sewer department was there when it was operating,” Housewright said. “Those solids do end up getting filtrated out, and the water we're releasing is clean, but it causes more wear and tear on the rest of the plant.”
Twice since that breakdown Mount Carmel has applied for community development block grant (CDBG) funds to make repairs, and both times Mount Carmel was rejected because the median income of its residents is too high to be eligible for this type of grant.
Sewer plant received a notice of violation
“That state has been patient with us while we sought these grant funds to make these repairs, but through it all we've come to find out we're just not going to be eligible for grants because the median income of our residents,” Housewright said. “The state has basically said, we've been patient. We've worked with you. It's time to do something.”
In May the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued the Mount Carmel sewer treatment plant a notice of violation.
Housewright added, “We've got a hole that we've got to dig ourselves out of. The study is going to give us a guide to digging out of the hole, and its going to communicate to the state that we're taking this seriously and were taking steps to rectify the problem. In addition to that I'm hoping we'll come out of a study with a handbook that keeps us getting into this position again.”