Lakeland grapples with need to expand sewer pipes, raise rates
Senior citizens on fixed incomes and families watching their budgets say they’re worried about affording major hikes in Lakeland’s sewer rates. But Lakeland’s leaders made a case at the Oct. 25 town hall meeting for why they must improve an overburdened system and ask residents to pay for those changes.
Another meeting to further discuss sewer improvements and rates will follow at 5 p.m. tonight, Nov. 3, at Lakeland City Hall.
One of the main reasons for improvements is the fact that the city’s current collection system is at capacity, according to City Manager Jim Atkinson.
He explained that Lakeland has been approving a lot of development since 2004-2005. The sewer plant constructed around 2006 is adequate, but the pipes going to it generally are at capacity given the current usage and the city’s already-approved development projects that have been pending for years. The current pipes’ capacity issues will now force the city to make tough choices if nothing changes, such as deciding whether to extend already approved projects as they come up for renewal and deny new projects, or rescind the projects that have made it this far so the city can consider new projects proposed by developers.
“If we want to grow, we’re going to have to expand our system,” Atkinson said.
With an eye to expansion, Lakeland is in the design phase of a project that looks at a new interceptor line on the east side of town, extending down near/east of Chambers Chapel. It would take some the city’s existing subdivisions in that direction and probably remove two or three lift stations, if possible. Atkinson estimated it would take three to four years before construction could begin.
Another reason for raising sewer rates would be to fund a necessary acquisition, the Memphis portions of the collection system in the Stonebridge area. Memphis has given a head’s up that it will be asking Lakeland to purchase those assets. The price and timetable are still under negotiation.
In discussing sewer budgeting, Atkinson explained that the sewer is an enterprise fund, meaning it has to fund its own improvements without using the city’s general fund.
He introduced a consultant to explain the third primary reason why Lakeland must raise its rates.
Steve Wyatt, a utility operations consultant for the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), examined the city’s 2015 audit (the most recent available). Although the sewer fund isn’t operating in the red, his examination showed there is not enough of a cushion to fund expansions or major replacement/repair projects.
Wyatt said the city has to start adjusting rates to meet the future needs of the city.
Atkinson said the city has already removed its $46 cap on every sewer rate bill, a recent change that has pummeled the city’s heaviest water users — those who irrigate their lawns and those who have pools. The minimum base rate is $31.50 based on the fixed cost within the system. He said the rate is higher than most surrounding municipalities because Lakeland has fewer customers.
The majority of people are paying the minimum, he said.
Lakeland citizen Mike Shideler said he doesn't object to the 11.5 percent rate increase he's recently experienced or the lowering of the basic allowance. But for him, the rate cap removal equated to a 230 percent increase in his sewer bill for water that's going on his grass, not into the sewer.
The sewer rate is based on the water meter reading, so one solution for people who have pools or irrigate is to purchase a separate irrigation meter (a second water meter that is not charged a sewer fee). However, MLGW provides water for Lakeland and will not allow anyone else to install the meters. The costs have been quoted in ranges of $1,200 to $2,800 for area homes, depending on the property's needs, according to Lakeland City Engineer Emily Harrell in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Shideler commented at the Oct. 25 meeting, “If it weren’t so expensive — if MLGW weren’t gouging to the tune of about three grand — to put a new water meter in, then I would have done it,” he said.
After further discussion at the meeting, the mayor said Lakeland will explore using winter averaging to possibly reduce costs, check into the possibility of buying the necessary software for internal billing and request that an MLGW representative attend the next board meeting.
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to email@example.com.