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By JUDY UNDERWOOD
Morgan County News Editor
Time and again the meeting of the Sunbright Utility District threatened to get out of hand last Tuesday, Nov. 20. Voices were often raised with people talking over each other. More than once the utility employees attempting to keep the record of the meeting got lost in the noise.
Questions were raised about the financial practices of the district while Board President Roy Freels struggled to maintain order. An advisor to utility districts paid by the state apparently met with Freels and SUD Manager Bryant Jones. That advisor helped them develop a plan to begin to get the district out of the red. But some members of the audience question the decisions being made by the board.
Among concerns voiced were whether or not everyone served by SUD is treated the same; whether or not meters are being read accurately and monthly; whether or not Jones should be allowed to drive his SUD truck home everyday and use it for personal purposes and why was Freels the only one privy to the meeting with the state expert.
The meeting spanned more than two hours as mostly audience members voiced their displeasure, but the board moved forward with the plan developed through the meeting with advisor John Hall. Although some thought the board should take a few days and think about it before making a decision Freels and Russell Scott voted to accept the plan.
The plan which will raise rates by six percent in 2008, change the way SUD pays on call employees and will also raise tap fees among other things.
Residential customers weren’t the only ones voicing concern. Sunbright Mayor Dennis Reagan put the Board on notice that the city is experiencing its own financial difficulties because of sewer system collections.
Reagan said it appears that SUD’s failure to read meters correctly has cut the city’s sewer collections just about in half.
He has given the board a month to come up with a plan to recoup the revenue lost for the city or the city will seek legal advice and proceed along that route.
Jones defended the district saying he has personally read several of the meters. And that the guys have filled in the sheets that it must have been an error on the part of the office staff.
County Executive Becky Ruppe and some county commissioners in attendance said they were amazed to discover that some with the utility are blaming their problems on “too many grants.”
“Ever since I have been in office, getting water to people who need it has been my number one concern.”
SUD Manager Bryant Jones repeatedly rolled his eyes while Ruppe spoke and explained how the areas are selected that receive water from the grants.
Bob Colvin from East Tennessee Development District was on hand for the meeting and has been working with the county and SUD for a number of years to obtain Community Development Block Grants.
Those grant funds are used in communities with the greatest number of residents at the lowest cost, according to Colvin.
Ruppe did tell the Board that if they no longer want grants to provide water to families who need it, to just tell her and the county will use the grant money for other purposes.
County Commissioner Sue Duncan, who lives in the Sunbright District and hopes to one day have public water, shamed the Board members for voting on a proposal that they had not seen or taken time to study.
“I don’t see that we have any choice,” Scott said as he voted to approve the plan.
When Freels adjourned the meeting several in attendance were still voicing their dismay and displeasure with the outcome.