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Mayor seeks better financial reports from Norris water board

The Norris Water Commission should upgrade its regular financial reports to the City Council to make them more detailed and easier to understand, Mayor Chris Mitchell suggested during a presentation he made to the commissioners last week.

Mitchell asked to address the Water Commission during its regular “Director’s Order Weekly Work Session” on Tuesday evening, and came prepared with examples of financial reports that are created regularly by the LaFollette Utilities department that he would like to see the Norris utility board adopt.

The mayor recently has been critical of the Water Commission’s financial reports to the City Council, especially in the wake of a “Director’s Order” from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to correct violations of water-quality regulations concerning illegal discharges from the city’s sewage-treatment plant into Buffalo Creek.

The mayor received a “Director’s Order and Assessment” from TDEC’s Division of Water Resources in February detailing the violations, which allegedly occurred from May 1, 2019, through Nov. 30, 2021.

The city has already paid $4,692 in fines to the state, and would be on the hook for $18,000 or more in additional fines unless the city’s remediation plan, filed in May, is completed on time.

The city might have to spend up to $7 million to correct the sewer problems, primarily focused on stormwater runoff entering the sewer system.

Norris could be on tap to pay even millions of dollars more if the state requires replacement of the city’s aging sewage-treatment plant.

During last week’s Water Commission work session, the mayor suggested that the commissioners either consider hiring a fulltime employee with a financial background, or contract with a financial consultant to produce the regular reports.

The LaFollette reports he cited, which were included in a printed handout he gave to the commissioners, included detailed information on regular operating expenses, cash on hand, and capital-improvement expenditures.

Water commissioners were hard-pressed to answer Mitchell’s questions about cash flow and bank cash balances when the council was considering the commission’s 2023 fiscal year budget in June.

“Having financial information like this is always important, but even more so now with all the challenges we face,” Mitchell told The Courier News, referring to the money the city will need to spend to correct the sewage issues detailed in the Director’s Order.

“This is going to be a huge challenge,” he said.

“I was requesting that they should provide information like this [the LaFollette reports] and that they either include the skills necessary [to provide such reports] in job descriptions when they hire people, or to hire a consultant,” the mayor said.

“I did not say which one I preferred, just that the [Water Commission] should acquire the skill one way or the other. My comments were more longer-term. But a consultant is cheaper than hiring an employee.”

He said the commission probably could contract with a financial consultant for $10,000-$20,000 a year, compared with spending up to $60,000 a year “on a fulltime employee.”

The city hired Cannon & Cannon Consulting Engineers of Knoxville to create the plan to remedy the violations.

That plan, submitted to the council during the regular May council meeting, called for making the required repairs beginning as soon as possible, with an estimated completion date of late 2028.

Under the engineers’ plan, the price for the bulk of the work was estimated to be $5.488 million, with a potential bill as high as nearly $7 million.

The money to pay for the upgrades will come from a “combination of grants, debt and increased sewer rates” to customers, Mitchell has said.

The engineers are still testing the sanitary sewer system to find leaks and other problems that allow stormwater to enter the system. Some of that work, including smoke tests, will be ongoing for possibly several more months.

Norris is under pressure from the Division of Water Resources to fix the stormwater runoff issue, which causes the discharge of polluted water into Buffalo Creek.

Under state law, the city cannot use property taxes to fund the repairs, and also may not add any of those expenses to customers’ water bills.

Instead, the city must get grants and/or borrow money to pay for the upgrades, and then pay off the loans using higher sewer rates for customers. About three-fourths of Norris water customers – around 600 – also have sewer service, and would have to pay the higher sewer rates.

City officials have noted that the pollution problems are only with the sewer system, and have nothing to do with the city’s drinking water, which has long been considered to be of outstanding quality.

“This is not about your drinking water,” Mitchell said earlier. “Your drinking water is clean.”