Council approves utility rate hike on first reading

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   As the element of water becomes increasingly precious in Elizabethton and around the world, the price for this prize commodity is rising.
   The Elizabethton City Council voted 5-1 to approve an ordinance raising city water and sewer rates with Diane Morris absent and Pat "Red" Bowers voting no.
   "The problem is, if you want clean water, you have to pay for it in today's dollars," said Mayor Sam LaPorte.
   According to the water/sewer ordinance, the municipal water rate for customers living inside the city limits would increase from the current rate of $5.20 to $6.24 for the first 1,000 gallons of water used, while metered sewer rates for municipal customers would rise from $7.89 to $9.47.
   Regional system customers living outside the city limits would see their water rate rise from $9.70 to $11.64 for the first 1,000 gallons of water used.
   The Waste Water Finance Board summoned city administrators to Nashville in November to discuss the system's financial structure. After reviewing the city's budget cuts, the board ordered the city to modify the utility rate structure to fund the system.
   Rev. Gordon Welch, pastor of Northside Baptist Church and a commissioner on the North Elizabethton Water Co-op, told the Council the Co-op had received a grant to improve their system. He also noted that the cooperative had been directed to raise their water rates by state and federal agencies to cover the improvements.
   "When you people say you have to raise the water rates, I understand it," said Welch, who also delivered a rousing invocation to begin the meeting.
   The North Elizabethton Co-op serves roughly 480 customers and has seen its water bills rise roughly $3,000 per month since June, Welch said. The cooperative's water bill from the city had averaged $12,100 during the first six months of 2002. That average jumped to $15,100 from June to November, Welch said.
   The rate was fueled by the Co-op's need to purchase more water from the city due to broken water lines kindled by the current U.S. Highway 91 project, he added.
   "I have come to ask somehow could you work with us for the next three to four years," said Welch. "The last six months have just about done us in."
   Councilman Richard Sammons suggested the city explore a way to help the Co-op cope with costs not associated with the new rate structure ordinance.
   Citizen Charles McQueen also questioned why the city had invested so much money in the Big Springs Water Plant and not pursued the Watauga River spring in the Blackbottom area.
   "You've spent all this money in that mud hole when the Blackbottom spring has been running clean for 65 years," said McQueen.
   City Manager Charles Stahl told the Council that the city had pushed the state to avoid revamping the Big Springs site and tap the Watauga spring in Blackbottom, but were rebuffed outright by the state.
   The closure of Alcoa Extrusions that cost the city roughly $200,000 in lost water/sewer fees and new municipal accounting regulations requiring cities to fully fund all depreciation costs are two major factors that have compelled the rate increase, according to the city.
   Projects including a state-mandated $2.2 million water filtration system at the Big Springs Water Plant and the $1.1 million construction sewer line connecting the West Interceptor to the sewage treatment plant added more capital costs.
   The council voted to meet Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 12:15 p.m. in City Hall to consider the ordinance on second reading and final approval.
   After the Council adjourned, council members put on their Beverage Board hats and took up show cause orders against five business owners whose employees were cited by police for selling beer to an under age customer.
   However, one business owner effectively made his show cause hearing moot when he announced the restaurant had closed.
   Jack H. Coffey of Creekside Coffey Cafe appeared before the council to announce the business had officially closed its doors after 16 months of operation as of last Saturday night.
   "We have decided to take this action to keep peace in the neighborhood," said Coffey. "For everybody's sake and the city we have decided to close our doors."
   Coffey turned the restaurant's beer permit in to City Clerk Bradley Moffitt during the council meeting. He also thanked the city officials for their courtesy and assistance in the past months.
   Citizens had complained to City Council at the past two meetings regarding noise and disturbances at the restaurant, which is located near several residences on the Milligan Highway.
   The board gave first-time offenders Winn-Dixie and Pizza Hut the option of a fine of $250 or having their beer permit suspended for three days upon request for a recommendation by Police Chief Roger Deal.
   The Board issued the penalty of a $250 fine or a three-day permit suspension for Ingle's Supermarket.
   An Ingle's employee had been cited for a beer sale to a minor in Jan. 1999. However, the council determined that violation was beyond the three-year window typically used to assess penalties for businesses cited for illegal beer sales.
   Representatives appeared on behalf of each business to verify that employees alleged to have committed the offense have been terminated. Store managers advised the board that each business had a training policy and required employees to sign contracts agreeing that selling beer to a minor was grounds for termination.
   The Roadrunner Market #116 on West G Street also faced punitive action for its second violation in three years. Deal recommended a standard second offense punishment of a $1,500 fine or suspension of the beer permit for 14 days.
   Attorney Richard Pectol appeared on behalf of Mountain Empire Oil, which owns the market and holds the permit, and told the board the company "had no excuse to offer" in regards to this offense.
   Pectol said the company had an exemplary training standard for employees at each of its 47 stores.
   "We are attempting to be good corporate citizens and put more safeties in place," said Pectol.
   Sammons took issue with yesterday's ruling by Chancellor Richard Johnson to reduce a penalty issued by the board against a second Roadrunner Market #141 located on U.S. Highway 91 owned by the company.
   "I don't appreciate it," said Sammons of the ruling who added his dislike of what he termed the "dictatorship" of the judicial branch of government.
   The board had suspended that market's off-premises permit to sell beer for 180 days in Dec. 2001 following the market's fourth violation of selling beer to an under age consumer in two years. Pectol appealed the board's ruling. At a hearing on Wednesday, Johnson's order reduced the suspension of six months to approximately 90 days.
   Sammons also questioned Pectol and the company's appeal of the penalty handed down by the board.
   "It is my right to do that," Pectol said. He added that the employee of Roadrunner #116 could not be found for the show cause hearing held in Dec. 2001. The inability to present her side of the story necessitated the appeal process of that violation, which was ultimately decided by Johnson.