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Norris Council again stalls on reorganizing utilities

After a second meeting to discuss bringing the Norris water and sewer utilities into a regular city department rather than continue as the semi-autonomous operation they are now, the City Council still seemed sharply divided on the issue last week.

That was in spite of what some residents who attended the meeting felt were compelling arguments to make the change, which would put water Superintendent Tony Wilkerson under direct supervision of the city manager.

Wilkerson now is nominally under the supervision of the unpaid, council-appointed Norris Water Commission.

He reports only the the commission, which itself is answerable only to the City Council.

During the meeting, Water Commission Chairman Richard Dyer raised his voice seemingly in anger to Councilwoman Loretta Painter as he took issue with her proposal to bring the utilities under control of the city manager, which led to the two council workshop meetings.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Dyer said during the latest meeting, March 1. “This is really the wrong time to make an extensive change.”

The proposed change does have some community support, however.

“I have a problem with a non-elected board having all that power,” Norris Planning Commission Chairman Joe Feeman said of the Water Commission during the March 1 workshop.

Moving the utilities to a regular city department – still with some duties of the Water Commission remaining intact – would curb the embattled commission’s tight control over the utilities.

Painter, who is the City Council’s representative on the 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.”

If the move were approved, and a proposed city governmental organizational chart suggested by Mayor Chris Mitchell were to be implemented, Wilkerson would report directly to City Manager Adam Ledford, much like the other city department heads do, including fire, police and public works.

The Norris Water Commission has come under intense scrutiny over the past year because of violations of state environmental laws that prompted the state of Tennessee to serve a so-called director’s order on the city demanding upgrades to the sanitary sewer system to avoid further illegal pollution of nearby Buffalo Creek.

State mandates that the city has already agreed to are expected to cost Norris about $7 million, and might even require construction of a new sewage treatment plant, which would cost even more.

Because state law requires municipal water and sewer utilities to be funded by their customers rather than by tax dollars, Norris already has among the highest water and sewer rates in Tennessee.

In its own counterproposal, the Water Commission proposes “contracting” the city to provide some services to the utilities, including financial planning and oversight. But the Water Commission insists that Wilkerson should continue reporting directly to the five commissioners, rather than switch to having him under supervision of the city manager.

Critics of the Water Commission contend that long-term neglect of the sewer system, through the lack of long-range planning and regular upgrades, has led to the current crisis. Wilkerson has worked for the city utilities for 36 years and has been superintendent for the past 16 years.

Despite the continuing problems and the massive investment in infrastructure upgrades that are looming, only Mitchell and Painter so far seem to be in favor of the management changes.

During the recent workshop, councilmen Will Grinder and Bill Grieve expressed opposition to any changes in utilities management, and the newest councilman, Chuck Nicholson, has been non-committal on his position.

Although the workshop was not a voting meeting and no official positions were taken by the councilmembers, what did result from the session was a request that the city manager meet with Wilkerson to discuss how a transition might be accomplished.

No further meetings have been set – or even suggested – for the council to continue discussions on the potential structural changes in management of the utilities.

The idea for the changes originally came from Councilwoman Painter, who called for the first workshop, which was held Jan. 23. That workshop was approved by a unanimous vote of the council during its Dec. 12 meeting.

Painter made a motion near the end of the December 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.

Before the Jan. 23 workshop began, Mayor 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 and 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.”

Norris is under pressure from the Tennessee Division of Water Resources to fix the issue of stormwater 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 into Buffalo Creek.

The city already has paid $4,692 in fines 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 sewer repairs, and also may not add any of those expenses to water bills.

Not all water customers have sewer service in Norris.

The city must get grants and/or borrow money to pay for the sewer upgrades, and then pay off the loans using higher sewer rates for customers.