Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Budget Cuts May Lead To Water Woes

by Drew Schaar

An Athens City Council ordinance proposes to cut the budget for many city departments. The majority of those cuts - more than $215,000 - are for water and sewer funds. If passed by council, the sewer maintenance, administration and plant funds would all be slashed. This cut could have a negative impact on the city's water infrastructure. Service and quality could be compromised for residents, in a city that has frequent boil advisories.


Below is a list of some operating costs that could be cut.

Sewer Maintenance Fund - $136,000
Sewer Administration Fund - $3,300
Sewer Plant Fund - $54,500

At this time Nick Carr, Head of Water for the City of Athens, says that no personnel are being cut. He cautions that could change depending on how bad the budget gets as the year continues.

Carr says right now the Water Department has about $30,000 set aside for maintenance costs for the year. So far a little over $20,000 has been spent, and it is only February. As a result, that does not leave much money for the rest of the year for maintenance expenses. Carr says after the fund is depleted they will to go to council asking for more emergency money. At that time council will be forced to borrow the money, or take it from a more healthy account. "It's only going to slow things down," Carr says.

Carr listed a few projects that need to be completed to maintain service. He said there is a sludge pump down at the treatment plant as well as pumps needing repair on Richland and Oakmont. According to Carr, "All of this equipment is extremely expensive to maintain."

The operating budget is being cut, resulting in less maintenance to pumps, lines, and the treatment plant. Carr compares the situation to caring for your vehicle. If you don't service and maintain the equipment, you're not going to get the life expectancy out of it.

"It's just sad that we've gotta let things go. In the long run it is going to cost the city more money," says Carr, "Down the road we're going to have to fix all of this." He says the city is already violating its permit with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA wants the City of Athens to make improvements to its water system, but Carr says they don't have the money to do it. There is hope with the National Stimulus Package. Carr says the city could see some money trickle down that would help them complete maintenance and upgrades to the water system.

Head of Water Nick Carr talks about what the cuts mean for Athens


"Council hasn't raised rates enough to keep up with maintenance aspects of the system," says Carr. The situation is creating a deficit for the city, which isn't pulling in enough money to cover costs and account for inflation. This, added to budget cuts, has rendered bank accounts very low. Right now water rates have an annual increase on average of 3-5%, making the water fund stable. There won't be many cuts there. Carr says, "Sewer rates need to have annual increases to keep up with inflation." The problem is city council has to vote to raise sewer rates, so they rarely change. In fact, the last increase was roughly eight years ago. However, the safety service director can raise water rates, much easier to do comparably speaking.


There are many resources available for Athens City residents to find out about water main breaks, outages, or boil advisories. First, The Government Channel (Channel 15 for Time Warner Cable customers in Athens) will air the information on their channel as "ticker" information or part of a graphic to get resident's attention. Additionally, residents can tune into local radio stations which will frequently inform residents of boil orders.

Still, there are more options. The city's website offers a few great resources to residents to inform them about boil orders. That site will post them on the home page as well as the "water" section. If desirable, an e-mail subscription can be submitted to have boil alerts immediately e-mailed straight to your account. For those with less access to the internet, the city also runs a boil order hotline. That number is 594 5078. Residents can call that number to listen to a pre-recorded message which includes the latest information about boil orders.

We spoke to Joneswood Drive resident Don Stout. His street was affected by a boil order earlier in the month. He says he sees about a half-dozen boil orders a year. Stout says, "When the water goes off, I know there's a problem. So, in the last case I just went out and talked to the guys that were repairing it." Stout adds, "You can call - there's a hotline number. You can call it and it will give you a recorded message." That's how he usually finds out about boil orders. To him, waiting to hear the information on television or radio takes too long.

Resident Don Stout talks about boil orders

About the frequent boil orders, Stout says, "Well it'd be nice if it didn't happen but there's not solution to it because the pipeline is so old. It is cast iron and fractures particularly on this street because of the underground strata." He went on to explain that the ground under the surface is subject to frequent slippage, and the slightest move can break a fragile, aging pipeline.

Repairs will still have to be made although the city is planning to cut the budget for maintenance. No word on how that situation will be handled. However, resident Don Stout says, "They're going to have to make emergency repairs...budget or no budget."

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