Rockwood residents still fired up over utility operation

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By Cindy Simpson

Customers fired questions about the Rockwood Water, Sewer and Gas Utility to Rockwood City Council, the utility’s sitting board, during its meeting last week.

Many focused their questions to Councilman Harold Ishman, who sat on the board that was recently eliminated.

One resident asked how the utility got into the situation it did — illegally borrowing gas funds to support the water department.

“When I was on the board back in 2005, at that time the gas department was not owed any money from the water department,” Ishman said.

Later, the board decided to borrow $75,000, Ishman said.

“That continued because there just never was enough money coming into the water department,” Ishman said.

Since 2009, Ishman said, when he saw the financial reports, he and former manager Rod King looked at ways to address the issue and decided the only choice was raising rates.

However, that was not a popular option to the Rockwood City Council, Ishman said.

“There really was only one answer, that is we had to get our water rates increased enough to alleviate this cost that was continuing to dominate us and that was the cost at the wastewater plant,” Ishman said. “The big issue that was costing the water department was the amount of regulations that TDEC and EPA were sending down to us, and we just didn’t have enough money to do all the upgrades they was telling us we had to do. They didn’t give us any choice.”

Councilman Dudley Evans said he wanted to know who approved the borrowing of interdepartmental funds.

“A fraud audit, depending on what needs to be done, could run $40,000,” Mayor James Watts said.

Officials said the state comptroller’s office had not recommended a fraud audit.

Others questioned whether King was working under an approved contract.

Ishman said he had signed a contract with him in 2005.

Ishman said the contract he signed would have expired in 2010 but he thought the board may have extended it in 2007 to go into 2012.

Councilwoman Peggy Evans said she had questioned the issue herself.

She said she believed it was former utility board chairman James Neal, a former councilman now living out of state, who had brought it before the board in 2008.

“I got a copy of his contract and the minutes of the meeting they voted to extend his contract, but I believe Mr. (Dean) Woodall put a clause in there which was a mandatory clause where that if any conduct that they thought was bad then his contract was null and void. But when I asked about it having been drawn up and then presented that was never done,” Peggy Evans said.

“I don’t think it ever came to the city council,” she added. “They never voted on it. And if you are thinking like I’m thinking, then probably the contract was not valid. I don’t know. I asked and never did get the answers.”

Also brought up was one utility board employee’s several complaints against other employees, including one against John Skidmore.

Police were called to the treatment plant where employees were exchanging heated words.

King was at the property to collect items from his office and was asked to leave.

The police report said Susie Ferrell said Skidmore had warned her and other employees not to talk to Willard Mead, assistant manager.

Interim Manager Ron Berry said he had met with Ferrell on some of the complaints and had asked the civil service board to address some of the issues.

Another resident questioned whether a company owned by Roger and Robbie Toole was contracted to do work the utility could do and asked if it was publicly bid.

Ishman said he thought Neal was chairman at that time as well and didn’t know why the company was hired.

She also asked if Ishman had done work for them and if there had been any kickbacks or conflict of interest.

Ishman said no.

He said while he had done construction work for them, it had been long before he was on the utility board.