Let The Water Company Pay The Bill - And Response (2)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Tennessee American breaks a line and 35,000 people lose water for three days.  Well they don’t exactly admit they broke it, they were working on it a few feet away and it just broke….so they say. 

One half of TAWC service area is out of water three days and nights, hospitals canceling surgery, schools closed and opened and then sending the children home, businesses shut down, government offices closed. 

Of course, Tennessee American Water Company said it was an accident and they did not mean to.  Okay, if it was an accident just pay the bill.  A wreck is an accident and the last time I checked the party responsible paid the bill.  An apology and suggestions we boil our water are not enough. 

Some may say it's “our water company and they are doing the best they can”.  No, it is not, according to their fillings no Tennessean owns any of it.  It’s a private company, one of only seven private water utilities in the entire state of Tennessee.  Two are tiny, serving only a a resort or condos.  

Lest anyone think we are getting a bargain, while water rates in New York City have about tripled in the last 15 years, Tennessee American Water Company charges more. TWAC charges, as the ad says “gallon is less than a penny a day”. New York City charges .05334 dollars or about ½ a cent per gallon. This information is available from the New York City Water Board. 

Mayor Berke has said we will get to the bottom of this.  I don’t think the bottom is very far.  Former Mayor Littlefield says, “It's their fault because they don't maintain their system.” This is because capital improvements fit their financing model better than expensing. TAWC gets a guaranteed rate of return on their investment. The Tennessee Public Utility Commission sees to that. No other private company gets that, only a regulated monopoly as the TAWC. There is only one thing worse than a government monopoly, that is a lightly regulated private monopoly in an essential service-like water. 

No one has yet accused TAWC of intentionally digging so close to the 36” line that they broke it.  No safeguards have been shown to be in place.  Seismic testing the effects on the line and reducing the pressure in the line while digging further away would show their concern for the public.  Imagine if a private contractor had done this without a Tennessee One call, people would be calling for their head. TAWC should pay for all the damages. 

Are we to believe they did not know where their own 36” line was located?  Did they even make a Tennessee One call? My fear is that behind closed doors they will quote Rahm Emanuel, “You never want a serious crises to go to waste.”   

They always ask for rate increases about every two years, all compounded. They could benefit from this. The city, county and every business and homeowner should be reimbursed for their damages. These things don’t just happen. We should not pay with increased rates.  Let their Wall Street investors suffer the loss, only then will policies detrimental to our city be changed.

Jim Folkner


* * *

Only about 12 percent of the U.S. population is served by privately owned water systems.   

So why doesn’t Chattanooga own its own water system?  

Water is a basic human health need, a public good.  Entrusting it to a for-profit private corporation is unwise. 

Private companies are accountable to shareholders, not citizens in our community.

When a government agency gives a private water company exclusive distribution rights it creates a monopoly. Such companies are under little pressure to respond to customer concerns.

When water services are privatized, the financial burden does not shift from the public to the private sector.  Taxpayer money is not saved.  The costs of repairing, upgrading and maintaining infrastructure is shifted to taxpayers who wind up paying for these projects through their monthly bills.

Matthew Hine

* * * 

Oh, yes, sure, of course, absolutely, certainly -- sue the water company for last weekend's outrage (excuse me; I meant 'outage'), and that'll make everything all right.

Assuming real damage or injury to anyone can be proved, and assuming a jury of their peers can be convinced of such things, and assuming the lawsuit is in fact successful, then where will the award money come from?  Who's going to pay for all of those supposed and claimed damages, etc.?

The water company will surely claim it doesn't have the cash on hand to pay such penalties, and they can easily enough make that to be true.

Don't expect the money to come from the pockets of their foreign owners, either; they're probably well protected and insulated from such indecent raids on their private funds.

So who does that leave to pay the unspecified compensation that these excited and incensed (and quick to react) local folks are demanding?  It leaves only the rest of us, their neighbors, everyone else in town, the generally uncomplaining majority of water company customers of Chattanooga -- that money will have to come from our pockets.

Let's make it simple, save a lot of time, and be done with it right now:  Would it be okay with you folks if all of the rest of us, each of us who is not part of your 'class action' lawsuit, just wrote a check for $100 or whatever, and threw it into the kitty for the injured parties to fight over?  That's what you're really asking for anyway, isn't it?  Thirty-five thousand or so customers times $100 each amounts to $3,500,000 or so; that should make you happy, leaving only your lawyers to complain.

We all know we're in a new kind of world, a strange parallel universe of some kind where traditional, respectable, logical thinking is on the wane and capricious, knee jerk, consequential blaming is the name of the game.  Inconvenience is interpreted as injury, and momentary discomfort suddenly becomes great damage.

Last week I was fortunate to discover our loss of water pressure early, and quickly (well, slowly, you understand) filled a couple of clean five-gallon buckets from the trickle at the bathtub faucet.  We're way out here in Lookout Valley, on the far bitter end of the water supply chain, and were among the last to have water pressure and quality fully restored.  From dawn on Friday until almost noon on Saturday, my wife and I had only that 10 gallons of water for general purposes, plus a half dozen little plastic bottles of store-bought water to share for drinking, etc.  Yes, of course that was inconvenient, but it didn't exactly destroy our lives.  We didn't even bother to turn off the lights, huddle under blankets with flashlights, and play like we were camping out, roughing it; we simply did the best we could with what we had until things got back to normal.  Then, for a couple of days, we boiled that restored water.  Things were good again, until ...

On Tuesday night I was already in bed when my wife came in to advise me that the faucet at the kitchen sink wasn't working -- no water would flow at all, but the faucets in the bathroom next door worked fine.  So, on Wednesday morning I had two choices.  I could call the water company, accuse them of being responsible for my problem, and demand they send out a plumber to fix it immediately at their expense.  Or I could check out the faucet myself.  No, of course I'm not the last American action hero, but I did get a big pair of pliers, I put new seals in the battered 30-year-old faucet, cleaned up my mess, and the faucet immediately worked fine.  I don't really know what was wrong with the thing that caused the water to stop flowing, but I certainly don't believe the water company was responsible for its failure -- even though everyone knows the whole town's water system was devastated only four days earlier.

We may suspect that public utilities such as the water company treat our money much the same as government agencies do -- irresponsibly.  State and federal highway departments collect tax money from various sources -- from all of us -- year after year in the name of maintenance and new construction.  But whenever it comes time to do some actual maintenance or building of new bridges, roadways, etc., suddenly their coffers are empty and taxes must be raised.  Just so the water company may have been funneling 'maintenance' and 'infrastructure' fees into investors' pockets all along, so the money for maintenance and new building isn't where it should be.  A quick look at our new water bills shows they resemble the expanded and amplified telephone bills that were laid on us some years back.  Incomprehensible they are, with interlocking and overlapping and confusing and maybe even redundant charges for nearly everything under the sun.  It's not a simple matter to determine exactly what we're being charged for, we merely know we're being charged more than before without being able to tell where the money is going once we pay the bill.

But, on a good day, on perhaps more than 99 percent of all days, the water does flow.  It's there at our fingertips when we need it, clean and ready for use.  It is relatively inexpensive, it almost always tastes good and doesn't smell bad, it works for our needs, and it's a whole lot more convenient than toting heavy buckets from the nearest spring or stream. 

Remember the old fable about killing the goose that laid golden eggs?  Those old folks who did have to tote all of their water in buckets had more sense than a lot of modern folks may have, huh?

P.S. to the water company:  This charitable and benevolent opinion doesn't give you a free pass for all future eventualities or any kind of incompetence; I really do expect excellence and reliability in water service and water quality from you.

Larry Cloud
Lookout Valley

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