HUNTSVILLE — By a 3-1 vote, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen here approved the first reading of an ordinance increasing sewer rates by 20 percent across the board Thursday afternoon.
The vote came two days after mayor George W. Potter and alderman Paul Lay traveled to Nashville to meet with state officials regarding the financial state of the town's sewer system.
It came three days after Scott County officials finalized an identical 20 percent rate hike for customers of the county's sewer system, also in response to a meeting with state officials.
And while the 20 percent rate hike in Huntsville follows a sewer rate increase just last year that raised the town's sewer rates to the same level as the county's rates, it may be just the beginning. On the present course, the town will be forced to raise its sewer rates by an additional 20 percent in each of the next two years.
Potter said that while the rate increase was not something the town wanted to do, the alternative was the state forcing a 99 percent rate increase on the town's sewer system.
"They gave us the option of raising ourselves by 20 percent or they were going to raise it 99 percent," Potter said. "If we vote against this, instead of getting 20 percent, we're getting 99 percent."
In response to a question from alderman Jody Newport, who ultimately cast the lone vote against the increase, Potter said there were "no other options."
"If you think they can't do it, just look at Jellico; the state has taken over their sewer system," Potter said. "We can't just bow out and do nothing."
The rate increase means the minimum monthly sewer bill for a residential customer — one who uses fewer than 2,000 gallons per month — will increase from $21.24 to $25.44.
By the time the last of the expected three successive increases are implemented, the minimum monthly bill will be $36.62.
That is similar to the situation at the county level, where commissioners are expected to have to address additional rate increases over the next two years in addition to the rate increase just approved.
In voting against the rate increase, Newport said there should be some option for addressing the revenue shortfalls other than increasing rates.
"All I ever hear when we come in here is raise rates, raise rates, raise rates," Newport said.
Alderman Steven Asberry, however, said biting the bullet with the smaller rate increase was better than the alternative.
"I'm sure (the town's residents) would rather have a 20 percent raise now as a 99 percent raise now," Asberry said. "When the state mandates it and says 'you're going to do it,' 20 percent is better than 90 percent any day of the week."
While additional rate increases are likely to be necessary each of the next two years, town recorder Wendy Buttram said the 20 percent rate increases aren't written in stone for the two subsequent years.
"We can keep reviewing it every year," she said.
One way the town hopes to remedy the situation is with increased efficiency at its wastewater treatment plant. Work on a massive overhaul of the plant is expected to begin in the coming weeks. After having to rebid the project twice since receiving state grant dollars for the project in October 2012, due to the bids coming in over budget, the town was finally able to award the project to Cookeville-based J Company with $90,000 to spare.
"This is a design we're hoping will be cheaper to operate," Buttram said. "Our electric bill now, just on the plant, is $90,000 a year. We're hoping this (new design) will decrease our costs. Chesty (Strunk, sewer operator) is constantly coming up with ways to save money down there. We're on the bare pickings as far as spending money at the plant. But there's only so much you can do, and the state requires so much."
On the subject of the sewer plant, Potter said replacing the cassette membranes currently used to treat wastewater at the facility would have cost the town $360,000. But, he added, "by going to a conventional plant, we are going to raise our capacity from 250,000 gallons per day to 1 million gallons per day and still save money."
In other business, the board approved a resolution honoring former mayor Larry Crowley, the long-time Huntsville Utility District manager who died earlier this year.
Crowley served as mayor of Huntsville from 1989 through 1991 and also spent 15 years as a member of the town's fire department, including a stint as its fire chief.
"Larry meant a lot to all of us," Potter said. "We miss him."
Sharra Crowley, herself a former alderman who served six terms on the town's governing board, was on hand to accept a plaque from the town recognizing her late husband's commitment to Huntsville.
"Larry loved this town," she said. "He loved serving the town. This town meant a lot to him."