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Recent sewer rate hike to affect Signal businesses and residents

With the 39 percent sewer rate hike recently passed by the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority hitting Signal Mountain Jan. 1, residents and business owners alike must face the increase head on.

“Definitely in this economy when you are in small business, every little increase … is going to be tough. This is such a dramatic increase too,” said J & S Shoes owner Jeff Price. “In today’s times with the economy the way it is and people struggling, they just keep making these increases like nothing’s going on. I don’t understand it.”

Price, a member of the Mountain Business Association, said his business didn’t get slammed with the effects of the recession until 2011 and noted that it feels like sales are trying to pick up again. He added, however, that he doesn’t know that anyone can prepare for an almost 40 percent increase in sewer rates.

“It’s just another one of those hurdles we will try to overcome,” said Price. “Being in retail … you’re at the mercy of your community. [The MBA’s] big theme is ‘Shop local.’ We are trying to tell people to keep the money on the mountain.”

Two-thirds of residents in the town of Signal Mountain currently have septic tanks instead of a connection to the sewer system, according to Town Manager Honna Rogers. Officials have previously worried aloud about residents not wanting to connect to the sewer — and that was before the rate hike. If the sewer rate keep increasing, residents may wish to avoid connecting once the Signal moratorium is finally lifted. Residents perpetually on a septic system may mean continuously contaminated environments and limits to development.

“We have contaminated streams near the areas that are on septic,” said Rogers. “Septic systems need ongoing maintenance and I know with developers it is much preferred to do sewer lines.

WWTA Attorney Chris Clem said the rate increase is a result of WWTA’s efforts to avoid a consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency like the one recently given to the city of Chattanooga. According to Clem, WWTA has so far done a sufficient job of keeping up its sewer repairs — but it’s clear the repairs won’t be enough.

“We all [surrounding cities such as Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville] have 50- to 60-year-old sewer systems. It’s just time for most of these to be replaced,” he explained. “The EPA wants to know that sufficient progress has been made with all three of our components [main sewer lines, private service laterals and pump and service stations].”

Clem said the repairs are extremely costly; a $10 million dollar government loan was approved a few months ago to allow WWTA to make repairs on private service laterals. This particular loan is being serviced by the $8 fee already on residents’ sewer bills. But repairing the main lines throughout the area as well as upgrading pump stations could cost up to the tens of millions of dollars, according to Clem, contributing to the rise in the general sewer rate fee.

Due to the current leaks in the sewer lines, with a heavy rain local sewer flow grows up to 28 times its usual level, raising expenses to treat such a large amount of water and causing overflow into the Tennessee River, said Clem. The EPA wants the water treatment company to get that ratio down from 28:1 to 6:1 as a maximum overflow rate.

“Nationwide most sewer systems will be raising their rates indefinitely,” Clem said. “If the EPA doesn’t back off of their current unfunded mandates, all sewer systems will be raising rates every year or two. It would be nice if we could have more time to make these repairs.”

Update on Signal’s sewer moratorium

From a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation standpoint, the moratorium is still in place and will remain in place until Signal Mountain is connected to the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, according to TDEC communications representative Meg Lockhart.

So far, WWTA has taken the following measures toward lifting the moratorium:

-WWTA has obtained the easement for constructing a connector sewer line from the Signal Mountain Wastewater Treatment Plant on Suck Creek Road to a pump station at Baylor School.

-The design for that sewer line has been completed.

-Designs for modifying the existing treatment plant have been completed.

Lockhart noted that WWTA can’t start the construction until it has authorization from the city of Chattanooga to connect to the city’s collection system. As a consent decree was issued to the city of Chattanooga that stipulates requirements for connecting new services, Signal Mountain can’t connect to Moccasin Bend until the decree is finalized and certain requirements are met, which could take up to 37 months. WWTA will then be able to develop the required data to present to the city of Chattanooga for connection approval.

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