SUD Frustrated Over ARP Funding; Amending Charter

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The Sewanee Utility District Board of Commissioners spent a good portion of the April 19 meeting discussing allocation of American Rescue Plan (ARP) matching-grant funds and the board’s efforts to seek legislative action to amend the private act that chartered the utility. Neither initiative is moving forward as the board hoped.

SUD Board President Charlie Smith and Manager Ben Beavers recently attended a meeting of the Franklin County Commission Finance Committee to present SUD’s request for ARP funding for five projects costing just over $655,000. According to a letter from Franklin County Mayor David Alexander, “Franklin County has $3,738,000 available from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) for Water Projects.” For utilities receiving matching-grant funding, “the Utility providers part would be 20 percent.”

Smith said the finance committee could not answer a question “about TDEC money versus ARP money.”

The committee did not have a clear explanation for allocations totaling over $1 million, Beavers concurred. What appeared to be the case was, “They [the county] already gave 30 percent of the [ARP] money to one utility. We get there, and suddenly the rules change.”

“Two point four million or $3.5 million [available] is a big difference,” said SUD Commissioner Johnny Hughes, who also serves on the Franklin County Commission.

“I’m not optimistic we’ll get a substantial portion of what we asked for,” Beavers conceded. He proposed the fair way to divide the ARP funds among utilities would be based on number of customers served. “If they don’t give us any money, how will they justify that, but in the end, what can we do.”

SUD’s request included $325,000 for identifying and replacing lead service lines to comply with federal law. Cowan requested $9 million for replacing lead service lines. “I asked for what I thought was our share,” Beavers said.

Beavers stressed the top-shelf item in SUD’s ARP request was purchase of a hydro-excavator to dig up service lines to inspect them for lead connections. SUD has 600 services which were installed when lead connections were commonly used. Beavers said if SUD did not receive funding for the excavator, the utility would need to purchase one.

Other projects in SUD’s ARP request include installing “variable frequency drive” controls at the water plant to reduce energy consumption, a $25,000 expense that would pay for itself in savings in 18 months; $24,941 to upgrade the SCADA system at the water plant to heighten cyber security; $150,000 to upgrade the 12-year-old membrane filtration module at the water plant; and $130,000 for a new bar screen at the main sewer pumping station to prevent disposable wipes and face masks from clogging and damaging pumps and creating a health hazard for employees tasked with repair.

Smith introduced a discussion revisiting SUD’s efforts to amend the private act that chartered the utility, striking the line prohibiting commissioners from serving more than two consecutive terms. Center Grove Utility District (CGUD) has pursued the same course of action to remedy the difficulty of finding people to serve as commissioners. (SUD’s recent election had five candidates for two seats, but in the past SUD has had difficulty finding commissioner candidates.) SUD sought the assistance of State Representative Iris Rudder and Senator Janice Bowling with no results. Smith said, CGUD recently received a reply from Rudder’s office stating, according to the legal department, the 2004 passage of Public Chapter 618 addressed the issue. In doubt, CGUD consulted with Tennessee Association of Utility Districts attorney Don Scholes who insisted the 2004 legislation did not remedy the problem. Smith said SUD would keep “nibbling away” at finding a solution. If the utility elected a candidate for a third consecutive term, a lawsuit would need to be initiated by a SUD customer for the utility to suffer negative repercussions, Beavers noted.

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