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No consensus on Norris utility changes

A Norris resident speaks during an informational work- shop held by the City Council on Monday night about possibly bringing the city’s water and sewer utilities under control of the city manager as a regular city de- partment. (photo:G. Chambers Williams III )
During a more than two-hour informational “workshop” meeting Monday night on making changes in the management structure of the city’s water and sewer utilities, the Norris City Council ended the session clearly divided on the issue.

The special session was called for by a unanimous vote of the council during its December meeting to consider bringing the city’s water and sewer utilities under control of the city manager as a regular city department, like fire, police and public works.

Councilwoman Loretta Painter made a motion near the end of the Dec. 12 council meeting to schedule the workshop. She said later that she would like to consider the changes to create more efficiencies in city operations and create a clear chain of command under the city manager.

The move came as Norris continues to struggle with state mandates to correct environmental violations with the sewage-treatment system, which eventually could cost the city in excess of $7 million, and might even require construction of a new sewage treatment plant, which would cost even more.

Before the meeting began, Mayor Chris Mitchell handed out copies of letters from former councilmen Larry Beeman and Robert Sain in favor of the shift of the utilities to a city department.

The mayor also gave out copies of an email from Angie Carrier of the UT Municipal Technical Advisory Service, which advises cities in Tennessee on legal and structural issues, that recommended the move.

“I would recommend [the utilities] be a department of the city to be treated and structured as the other departments and report to the city manager,” Carrier wrote. She added that the city’s current structure is unique “as it pertains to the day-to-day operation of the department.

“Operationally, you have a water superintendent that reports to the Water Commission,” she said. “Because the city of Norris has a city manager form of government, I do find this to be a unique situation. In the city manager form, with a few exceptions in private act charters, all department heads report to the city manager.

“Essentially, the city of Norris has two supervisors applying an interpreting the policies of the city. This could cause culture or morale issues for employees, if the same policies are not being applied fairly throughout the organization.

“Further, staffing supports all departments and this could also result in certain inefficiencies in providing support for budget, financial oversight and human resource needs if policy implementation is not streamlined.”

Although Painter made no mention of it during the December meeting, she told The Courier News that a second action that could be possible later would be a restructuring of the five-member Norris Water Commission to make the five-person City Council also serve as the Water Commission, replacing the current board.

But Painter has not pushed that idea since her earlier mention of it, and Mitchell made it clear throughout Monday night’s workshop that the meeting was not was not about changing the Water Commission’s current structure.

Still, some members of the Water Commission, and in particular Margueritte Wilson, spent much of their allotted speaking time challenging that issue.

Mitchell several times tried to steer Wilson back to the only issue on the meeting’s agenda – bringing the utilities – including Water Superintendent Tony Wilkerson and staff -- under direction of the city manager.

But the mayor was interrupted by some members of a small but vocal audience shouting, “Let her finish.”

As the meeting began, Councilman Will Grinder came out immediately in opposition to making changes in the management structure of the utilities.

“I think what we have now works. … I do not support any changes,” Grinder said. “I do support oversight of the Norris Water Commission by the City Council.”

Painter, who is the City Council’s appointed representative on the five-person Water Commission, expressed support for the change, saying, “I believe the city needs a clear chain of command, and a city manager that is the head of city operations.”

Although he was not as adamant as Grinder, Councilman Bill Grieve also indicated he was not in support of the changes being suggested, at least for now.

“I’m not sure this is the time to make any changes,” Grieve said, an apparent reference to the city’s current predicament of being under a director’s order from the state water quality control agency to bring the sewer system in compliance with environmental regulations.

Councilman Chuck Nicholson, who just joined the council in December, said he was still looking at the options.

“My mind is not made up yet,” he said.

Mitchell also presented copies of letters from former councilmen Larry Beeman and Robert Sain in favor of the shift of the utilities to a city department.

As the meeting neared its end, Water Commission Vice Chair Sue Hill presented a list of needs the commission has in its efforts to increase efficiencies and meet state environmental requirements for the sewage system.

Mitchell had requested that the commission submit its needs as part of the City Council’s process of considering structural changes.

Although no consensus was reached during Monday’s meeting, the mayor indicated that no decisions were expected, since it was not set up as a voting meeting. He said the process would continue – possibly even including a second workshop session once a detailed proposal for the changes is drawn up.

Norris is under pressure from the Tennessee Division of Water Resources to fix the issue of storm water overwhelming the sanitary sewer system during periods of heavy rain, or end up paying $23,460 in fines – or more -- for violations of state regulations regarding discharge of polluted water Buffalo Creek.

The city already has paid $4,692 of that fine to the state, and would be on the hook for the rest unless its remediation plan is carried out as scheduled.

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