City of Dalton officials are considering whether to pay $1.35 million of a proposed $2.7 million expansion of Dalton Utilities’ sewer collection system to The Farm.

Dalton City Councilman Charlie Bethel said the city has not yet agreed to pay for any part of the project that would extend sewer to the upscale development that has 82 lots and 65 homes. Dalton Utilities would pay the remaining $1.35 million.

City officials have spoken with the utility about the project, “but not in a formal sense,” Bethel said.

“It brings up a lot of issues,” Bethel said. “The first and foremost issue that’s readily apparent for everybody is that it is a portion of our community that’s not served. That’s obviously a concern for me, and I know it is for the board” that governs Dalton Utilities.

Before deciding on the project, Bethel said he wants to “have all of the information and have satisfied myself that I’ve thought it through fairly and carefully.”

“There are significant concerns on both sides that need to be weighed before a contract is let and money is committed,” Bethel said. “You’d be taking tax dollars to extend sewer in a way that you haven’t done historically in other areas. There’s no doubt about it that there has to be questions about that. And I take those very seriously.”

Dalton City Councilman Bobby Grant said providing sewer service to The Farm is “the right thing to do.” He said bringing sewer service to Rocky Face would open up development in the Mill Creek area.

“What helps Dalton Utilities helps the city,” Grant said.

Grant compared the proposal to Dalton Utilities’ $38.15 million project to extend water into Whitfield County, which has allowed growth in parts of the county. He said The Farm residents have been paying property taxes without receiving sewer service from the city for years.

“I put myself in their shoes,” Grant said. “If I lived out like that, I wanted sewer service and I’m paying a huge property tax, then I think I’m not getting something that everybody else in the city is getting.”

That is a sentiment echoed by members of the board that governs Dalton Utilities.

“The Farm has been inside the city about 15-17 years, and it’s the only subdivision inside the city limits that doesn’t have sewer,” board member Georgia Mitchell said. “This has been talked about for probably 2-3 years.”

Why now?

“We had a meeting with the city and everybody agreed on it, so we went on with it,” Mitchell said.

Asked what benefit the project will have for city residents other than the homeowners at The Farm, Mitchell said, “Put yourself in their place and look at the taxes they’ve paid over 15-17 years. They’re entitled to sewer. You’re talking about some big tax dollars out there. ...

“We were in a position to get sewer to them so we’re proposing building it.”

Bethel said City Council members must decide as a board if the city wants to pursue growth in the Mill Creek area.

“There is a significant amount of undeveloped acreage that could potentially be served by this sewer and it could potentially be annexed into the city, or it could be served not being annexed,” he said. “And those are all policy questions of various importance, and certainly all of them have to be wrestled to the ground before tax dollars are or are not spent.”

City Councilman Terry Christie, who serves as the city’s liaison to Dalton Utilities, said he does not recall the city entering into this type of agreement with the utility.

“We have not done this in the past that I know of and I don’t know if we’ll do it again any time soon,” Christie said. “It’s not like we’re going to get every single penny back, but it’s not like we’re just throwing money away.”

Christie called extending sewer to The Farm a “good thing,” and said the development should already have sewer service.

“Will that impact the region across the mountain in the future?” Christie said. “I don’t know. There is no plan. There’s nothing laying around in somebody’s desk drawer that’s going to open up this, that or the other. I would imagine that whole area across the mountain, if they were able to get access to sanitary sewer, that it would make a huge difference as far as being able to develop that.”

He suggested having a public meeting at City Hall to show the community Dalton Utilities’ plans for the sewer expansion.

Don Cope, Dalton Utilities’ CEO and president, and several of the board members said residents of The Farm have requested the service for several years.

“I think that there are several of the residents who are experiencing some difficulty with septic tanks,” Cope said.

The board approved the proposal requesting bids 5-0 on Monday. Board members are expected to evaluate the bids at next month’s board meeting and either award the contract or withdraw it, Cope said.

Board members in November approved rate increases in electricity, natural gas, water, sewage and some Optilink services — citing increased costs to deliver those services — as well as a 5 percent pay increase for all utility employees, including the possibility of bonuses above that.

Asked about the sewer proposal in light of the rate increases, board chairman James Gamblin said sometimes the utility has to spend money for future growth.

“It will be good for all of us,” he said, “because I’ll tell you as we see it, more and more we’re going to get mandated by the state and the Environmental Protection Division that septic tanks are not going to be acceptable, so we’re planning for the future.”

Asked if the rate increases gave any of the board members any concerns about moving ahead with the project, Mitchell said, “No.”

Asked about the rate increases, Cope said the board members “absolutely” thought it appropriate to move ahead with the sewer project, adding, “I think that if you compare what you pay for and receive from Dalton Utilities to anywhere you want to compare, you will find a very favorable comparison.”

One of the board members voting for the proposal, Lamar Hennon, lives at The Farm. Gamblin said board members did not discuss that.

“All of us live right here (in the community), and our decisions are going to affect all of us, whether it be me or whomever,” he said. “Certainly he had an option to vote or to abstain and so he elected to vote. I don’t see a problem with that because all five of us will be affected by some of the decisions” the board makes.

Hennon did not immediately return phone messages Thursday seeking comment.

Cope said Hennon “certainly didn’t push this issue. ... I will tell you that he did indicate that if the vote required him to make it go or not go, he would not vote, he would recuse himself. And it didn’t matter whether he voted for it or not, there were four votes without him, and so I don’t think that really should be an issue.”

Cope said the move will benefit the utility by providing it a system “to attach to when we’re able to expand and develop further. And in the big picture — and this is how this has got to be looked at — this is a component of being able to expand sewage service which is necessary for us to maintain the water quality that allows us to have the permit capacities that we have. ... We’re going to have to start managing stormwater, we’re going to have to start treating more wastewater and doing less septic tanks, in order that we maintain the water quality in the Coosa River basin and the Conasauga River basin that allows us to continue to have a high quality of life and the potential for any economic growth.”

Gamblin said, “This is an integral part of the development and the growth of the city and the county.”

Asked why the utility is moving forward with the project now, Cope said, “I think it’s not one issue, I think it’s probably a compilation of numerous issues. We’ve been on an 8- or 9-year program which has allowed us to improve our sewer collection system, improve our treatment system and treatment capacity. We’ve gone from a system that was overly stressed and strained and unable to meet its permit obligations to a system that is now award-winning in every competitive area of both plant and system operations ... I think what’s happened is over time we’ve gotten into a position where our capabilities are such that we can start doing some expansion.”

As with water service, Cope said he would like to see the utility provide sewer service “throughout all of Whitfield County, where feasible, and I think we’re working to be able to do that. I think that is in the long-term best interests of the community.”

Currently, the utility serves some small areas in the county where developers have paid for a particular project, Cope said, such as Whitfield Acres in the north end.

Asked if the utility could spend the $2.7 million elsewhere in the county and serve more customers than the 65 at The Farm, Cope said, “If I had the flow capacity and the treatment capacity to do that, there would be (a way). I’m going to have to build some additional treatment works in order to do that.”

County residents with property adjacent to the proposed sewer line won’t be able to immediately access it, Cope said.

“We’re going to build the pipe large enough to add lots of service to it, but we can’t add lots of flow right now. We’ll have a system in place that will accept additional flow, but in the near term we’re not going to accept any flow other than that from that development,” he said, noting that to do so will require development of additional treatment capacity.

Cope said he did not have an estimated annual revenue figure the utility will expect from the project because “I have not done this as a project that is a standalone ... I’m sure that there will be significant growth in the Mill Creek, Rocky Face and Tunnel Hill areas that can be served by an expansion of sewage collection services.”

Cope also could not say what it will cost for individual homeowners to hook up to the system, saying that will depend on a variety of factors, such as the size of the home and its elevation.

Utility board member Norman Burkett referred questions to Gamblin, and board member Smith Foster did not immediately return a phone message Thursday.

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