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With less than a minute between opening and closing gavel raps, Rockwood Water, Sewer and Natural Gas Board’s called meeting on Tuesday could go down as the shortest on record.
What wasn’t said, however, overshadowed what was supposed to be discussion about possible increases in gas and water rates.
“[Mayor James Watts] would like us to recess that until a later date until we get a legal opinion back on some issues that the state wants us to address,” said board Chairman Harold Ishman upon convening the meeting. “I’d like a motion to recess this meeting at this time.”
It was inferred by officials at Tuesday’s meeting that the legal opinion involved a letter and documentation distributed by board member Glen McCuiston to fellow board members Ishman, Jonathan Foust and James Nuckols; Rockwood City Council members Ray Collett, Peggy Evans and Bill Thompson; and Rockwood Water, Sewer and Natural Gas General Manager Rod King.
The Roane County News was not provided with copies of the documents at the meeting, and McCuiston asked council members to refrain from making them public.
The documents were, however, made available later to Council Member Dudley Evans, who works as a contract newscaster for BBB Communications, operators of cable Channel 12.
McCuiston said Tuesday he planned to ask Evans to keep the information off the air.
Watts confirmed Wednesday that the letter was written to McCuiston by a staff member of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. The mayor said it addresses concerns of mingling operating funds of the three utilities overseen by the board.
“The letter doesn’t accuse anybody of doing anything wrong,” the mayor said. “There’s nothing I’m aware of that’s been done illegally or dishonestly.”
Despite being shut out by city officials, the Roane County News was able to obtain a copy of the letter — a public record — Thursday morning from its author, Dennis F. Dycus, director of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office Division of Municipal Audit.
“As a public document, the letter is available to any citizen of the state of Tennessee,” Dycus wrote in an accompanying e-mail.
In a follow-up e-mail, Dycus said he has e-mailed Rockwood officials a review letter addressing the city’s 2009 audit report.
“I talked to [Dycus] about coming in and auditing the books,” King told Ishman immediately after the meeting.
Dycus’ response was that he wouldn’t, King said.
“He’d go up on the rates, is what he told me,” he added.
King called the letter “helpful” toward making water operations profitable, but “I’m sure it’ll be construed a different way for us.”
King and water board officials have been candid in budget talks about water and sewer operations borrowing money from the more-profitable natural gas department.
It’s one of the reasons they’ve used to substantiate a water-rate increase, to which McCuiston has been vehemently opposed.
McCuiston instead proposed a 10-percent across-the-board budget cut, which the board voted down.
He has often contended the mingling of operating funds, or borrowing between departments, is against state policy.
“Sometime in the (year) 2000 range as I understand it, Rod or the board at that time talked with somebody at the comptroller’s office and got an opinion that they could do what they’ve been doing,” Watts said. “I don’t think there’s any impropriety problems there. They apparently received permission to comingle funds, and they apparently have been comingling them for seven or eight years.”
McCuiston apparently approached the comptroller’s office last week about the matter.
The letter in response indicated “there are some problems there — and the problems are not as simplified as some folks think they are,” the mayor added.
Rockwood City Attorney Elmer Rich is working on a response to McCuiston, including researching any possible board agreements about borrowing between departments and suggestions of reimbursement.
As of Wednesday, Watts said he had not consulted with King about the issues detailed, nor had he seen any official numbers.
He said McCuiston’s figures show the water and sewer departments together owe the gas department a $1.3 million debt.
“We need to look at Glen’s figures and see exactly where we’re at,” the mayor said. “I’m not going to prejudge that we’re going to have to do anything. I looked at Glen’s figures, and I know what he’s saying, but I don’t know what Rod’s side is.”
He added, “If his figures are correct, we’re going to have to demand that there be a payback.”
Though he is awaiting Rich’s response, Watts said possibilities for reimbursement could involve the water board issuing bonds.
Others, he admitted, might not be as popular with ratepayers.
“I think that, eventually, there’s probably going to be a water-rate increase,” he said. “But it’s not going to be anything alarming.”
The board has been looking at raising water rates for some time.
A dismal bottom line prompted those talks, and board members in July approved an 18-percent hike for customers using 1,500 or more gallons of water per month.
McCuiston cast the only dissenting vote.
At an August work session with the water board, some council members balked at the proposal because it would, in turn, raise sewer rates for those customers.
Sewer customers pay 150 percent of their water bill for the service.
As an alternative, King proposed last week implementing a $3-per-month asset management and depreciation fee to add to the water department’s coffers.
The fee wouldn’t affect sewer rates, but all water customers — including those with minimum bills — would be required to pay it.
The water board was to debate both proposals at Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by a management team member of Alba Health, one of Rockwood’s major employers.
Watts said he asked for the postponement because, “I felt like we needed to address the whole situation rather than piecemeal it.”
“The city of Rockwood will do what needs to be done to take care of its customers and ratepayers,” he vowed.