Commission debates sewer grant, looks at committees’ hiatus

Residents near Grade and Russell roads may get relief from septic problems if the Blount County Commission supports a $500,000 matching grant that would require the county to pay an additional $390,000.

Terry Bobrowski, executive director of the East Tennessee Development District, asked commissioner to approve the grant application at their February meeting. The county will be told in September, 2009, if they will be awarded the matching grant. If so, a vote will be taken at the following commission meeting to approve $390,000 to match the grant.

Bobrowski said residents in the Grade Road/Russell Road area came to him nine months ago complaining of severe problems with the septic systems and drain fields and asking about ways to fund a public waste water collection system in that area. They settled on a community development block grant program available through the state of Tennessee that the county would have to match, he said.

“It’s going to require significant investment by Blount County to install this system,” he said.

Bobrowski said East Tennessee Development Agency spent the last few months checking to see if residents wanted the sewer line, were aware of the cost per month, knew that they would be paying a wastewater bill to the City of Alcoa for use of their wastewater plant and to determine if the City of Alcoa would cooperate in the project.

Bobrowski said a special criterion for the grant is that the primary beneficiaries be low and moderate-income residents.

“We are here to ask for your support for payment of local shares,” Bobrowski told the Blount County Commissioners at a workshop Tuesday. “There is a grant available for $500,000, and the project will be approximately $890,000. “We are looking for your support in the amount of $390,000. It would serve 81 residents with a low-pressure sewer system.”

Bobrowski said there are many older homes and smaller lots that are experiencing the problems. “They’re in a difficult situation. This is the only opportunity through this grant program to get sanitation sewer system in that area. City of Alcoa has a policy of not extending the sewer line beyond their city limit without annexing. This is a really, really good project.”

Commissioner Monika Murrell said the grant can be applied for every year. “Possibly this is just a stepping-stone for important things for those areas of county who don’t get touched by a city,” he said.

Bobrowski said the grant could be submitted at the end of this month. “The review process takes time. It would be September before we hear if the grant is approved or denied,” he said. “Typically, the local share funding is not necessary until at least your next fiscal year and possibly can be split between that fiscal year and the one after that.”

Commissioners Mike Walker and Scott Helton made a motion that the issue be taken to the full commission for consideration, and the motion passed.

Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said typically with these type grants, the commissioners won’t be appropriating funds with their vote this month. If the grant is approved, that is when the commission would vote to appropriate the money.

“If you don’t approve it, then we’ll lose the grant. There will be opportunity to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then,” Bennett said.

Bennett said the county’s portion could be paid through the general fund, work in kind or a bond issue. “This would become a county project and all these contract will be hard bid at the time we take on this project,” he said. “Right now, you’re just showing your commitment up to $390,000.”

Resident Stone Carr spoke in favor of the grant and said that while these are difficult financial times, this is an opportunity for the residents of the area. “I have lived in that area 30 years,” said Carr. “I have paid taxes 30 years. We don’t feel we’re begging, but we are asking for cooperation,” he said.

Carr said the Health Department has conducted surveys in the area. “Some of the systems are very, very decayed. The land there is not land that is amendable to having good septic systems,” he said. “We really need your help. We want you to know we appreciate the position you’re in, (but) we ask you to consider us.”

Committees on hold

Samples also spoke regarding the issue raised by the Knox County law director Bill Lockett recently in which the Knox County law director expressed his opinion that county commissioners could not serve on boards or committees if those boards or committees are appointed by the commission. This would include such committees as county budget committees, intergovernmental committee and education committees.

The reverberations to Lockett’s opinion have been felt all over the state and have brought committee and board meetings involving commissioners to a halt until the question is answered.

“If we err, we err on the side of caution,” Samples said. “We put all committees on hold until we get this whole thing sorted out.”

Currently, Blount County Commissioners serve on many of the boards and committees appointed by the commission. “It’s in limbo. They’re really trying to fix it,” Assistant County Mayor Dave Bennett said.

“The question is whether commissioners serving in appointed positions on committees or boards should legally continue to serve on county commission,” Samples said.

Samples said what does make sense is if the commission appointed a commissioner to fill a full-time constitutional position, such as a county clerk, then the commissioner would have to resign. This, however, is not the point Lockett is making, Samples said.

“The Knox County Law Director determined that a commissioner could not serve on the commission if they were appointed to a county commission committee,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

Samples said the bottom line is, if the statute says specifically a commissioner is required on a committee, then the law is saying that is OK. “If the law allows commissioners to appoint citizens but doesn’t require that it has to be a commissioner, then the law says you must resign from county commission if you accept the appointment,” he said. “All this came about in the last couple days.”

Samples said he’s been in touch with State Sen. Doug Overbey, State Rep. Joe McCord and State Rep. Robert Ramsey and said they are aware of the situation. “The whole state is aware of it. Today, they were forming legislation to correct and clarify the law because it has thrown a wrench into the workings of counties all across the state.”

The commission chair said the situation is far from clear. “I’ve lived and breathed it the last 24 and 36 hours and I’m still confused,” he said.

Samples said putting off committee business is the right move. “If we’re going to make a mistake, it’s going to be in being cautious until we know we are doing things correctly,” he said.

Also at the Feb. 21 meeting, the Blount County Commission will consider whether to dissolve the animal control committee. Samples said the short-term and long-term solutions to animal control issues have been addressed. “Right now, the committee is still meeting. We’re still operating under the original motion,” he said. “In that respect we do need confirmation as to whether the ad hoc committee needs to continue, and I would move we move this to the full commission.”

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