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Concerned citizens seek answers in Carderview Utility crisis

The combination of freezing pipes and a total lack of communication created a crisis for the Carderview Utility District in Butler last week. After noticing water pressure dropping throughout the day Friday, most of the nearly 500 customers on the system were left without any water at all Saturday. With numerous small leaks playing havoc, Carderview office manager Sharon Church made the executive decision to shut down the pumps in an effort to prevent potential damage. However, with no formal notification, even to the members of the Carderview Utility Board, rumors were quickly flying and tempers rising by Monday night’s quarterly business meeting.
For some the dry spell was short, with the system partially rebooting Sunday evening, but with several slow downs and serious problems in high elevation areas such as Horseshoe Cove. Even now there are still some customers without water access. Not surprisingly, the meeting saw a packed house at the recently constructed Rainbolt Street office. Two county deputies were on hand to help keep the peace as dozens upon dozens of concerned citizens squeezed in to hear the comments of the district’s three water commissioners.
Ironically it was the first official meeting for newly appointed member Doug Phillips, who was joined by fellow commissioners David Markland and Katie Harrell, as well as Church. While the crisis situation was the most pressing issue on everyone’s minds, the first actual order of business was to introduce the utility’s two new employees, Odes Robertson and Kevin Burchett. An expert who is certified in the field, Robertson is actually the chief operator for the Roan Mountain Utility District, and was primarily called in to help train Burchett, a qualified local resident. The board officially approved these new employees at the meeting although both have been working ceaselessly to help with the current emergency. A part of the problem has been in identifying where exactly the leaks are. According to Robertson, most have been between the meter and the home, and in those cases the department has been shutting down the meters in an effort to help build back up the system’s sole tank.
Burchett in particular has been extremely busy since the freeze identifying exactly what homes have leaks and in trying to inform the homeowner that their water has been shut off until repairs can be made. While this is a natural inconvenience, the biggest problems have been due to the full shut¬off. Because Carderview uses a unique sand filtration system, there are special requirements dictated by the state. As a result of the total shutdown, the system now has to be completely flushed and tested before the water being provided is considered fully safe.
As a result the Tennessee Depart¬ment of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) has issued a boil water requirement for the entire system, requesting that customers bring any water used to a complete rolling boil first. Even Robertson admitted that the total shutdown was not a wise move because of the extra problems it creates, noting that in hindsight there should have been a system slow down instead. Possibly the biggest problem overall has been a simple lack of communication, both between the board and their employees and the utility and its customers. In fact, one of the most common questions asked during the meeting was why no one was informed of the shutdown before hand. Newly appointed Chair David Markland acknowledged that there were many shortfalls in protocol handling the emergency and that keeping the customers in the loop should have been a priority. Noting the lack of suitable public forums for posting material, the board took suggestions from the audience, with ideas ranging from incorporating a one call system in case of emergencies to utilizing the district’s Facebook page.
Possibly the most logical and easiest idea to implement came from customer Larry Chaffinch, who suggested simply leaving a messaging system on the office phone so that customers could call in to receive updates. As the system recovers and repairs are made, Chaffinch was particularly worried about when the boil water requirement will be lifted and whether or not that information will actually be widely available.
Because most of the system’s problems can’t be alleviated until enough water is available to fill the tank, the board also asked their customers to be very conservative with their usage until things were back to normal. In the meantime the department also agreed to provide bottled water, which has been both delivered and available for pick up from the utility office.
While the main focus of the meeting revolved around this public information and dam¬age control, there were plenty of other issues brought up from crowd as well. One group of concerned citizens from the Horseshoe Cove neighborhood pointed out that they have actually sporadically been out of water without notice for the past two weeks. The board admitted that problems with the system’s pumps have been a difficult financial burden to overcome and was the direct cause of the problem in Horse¬shoe, primarily because it is the highest elevation served by the district.
Once again pointing out the lack of communication, the conversation then turned to the department’s ongoing financial troubles and questions about the availability of public documents including financial documents such as the budget and state audits. The board noted that any customer has access at the main office, but that copies do cost $.15 per page. When asked about the current financial status, there was also the acknowledgement that the district is currently several thousand dollars in the red, but that efforts have been underway to alleviate that problem. When questioned about whether the department has 5-15 year plan, the board explained that typically the budget is only done year to year. Even so, Chairman Markland did note that the department does plan for several individual projects such as the purchase of a new, larger water tank and an eventual connection at Copley Branch with the Mountain City water system as an emergency backup.
Other serious issues were addressed from the Butler Volunteer Fire Department, who had concerns about charges for a high flow meter installed at the fire hall, as well as from other customers who raised topics ranging from the appropriation of funds to how members of the water board are actually appointed. In most of these cases Robertson was able to provide some insight that was able to at least partially satisfy the concern.
Understanding that there is still a long way to go before the Carderview Utility District is able to fully get back on its feet, the meeting did see some steps in the right direction. While there was a lot of anger coming into the meeting, and much of it justified, better natures tended to prevail and the meeting actually ended on a fairly positive note.
Agreeing to now meet monthly rather than quarterly, this relatively new board seems to be gearing up to tackle the monumental challenges ahead. With the addition both Robertson and Burchett to help them out, hopefully a new sense of energy and responsibility can emerge to not only rectify the problems of the past but also help the department provide better, more reliable services in the future. Only time will tell, but possibly what started out as a true crisis in last week’s shutdown, may just become the first real eye opener to pointing the district in the right direction.