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News Town board debates water and sewer rate increases

The task of establishing water and sewer rates is not an easy one for the Town of Franklin Board of Aldermen. As part of adopting the proposed $8.4 million budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, aldermen contemplated the issue at their meeting on Monday, which included a public hearing.

Two residents voiced their concerns at the hearing about the water and sewer rate schedule. The proposed budget levies for an average increase of six percent for water and 14 percent for sewer services.

At last week’s budget workshop meeting, Town Manager Sam Greenwood explained that amid the economic downturn, many revenues are down—including water and sewer revenues. The increases have been drafted in order to “build reserves” for the service and pay off debts incurred by infrastructure improvements.

Mill Creek resident George Duley spoke out in opposition of the proposed increases, citing the hardships of a taxpayer in tough economic conditions. Mill Creek, a community outside of city limits, is already subject to high out-of-town rates, he pointed out. “Those who live outside of town already pay so much for water,” said Duley. “It’s become a burden ... It’s tough for a lot of people to handle.”

Franklin resident Angela Moore echoed Duley’s concern, pointing out that the increase was not fair to taxpayers who conserve on water and sewage usage. “It would be better to reduce water rates for residents because it penalizes those who do not use a lot of water.” She suggested implementing a reduced rate for those who use half of the maximum capacity of their water services.

Greenwood advised that the 14 percent sewage rate was “less flexible” in terms of reduction than that of the water. Aldermen determined that some kind of rate increase was necessary to cover ongoing utility maintenance, but wanted to reduce water rates for customers that have three-quarter inch meters. Such residents are the bulk of utility service, he explained, making up some 2,400 people.

“It’s obvious we have to balance our budget,” said Vice Mayor Verlin Curtis. “But it would be good to minimize the rates.”

The board concluded that an up close look should be made on the impact of the average monthly utility bill, before the proposed budget is finalized and the rates decided. The budget must be passed by mid-June, Greenwood noted.

“I would like to see some sample bills, if possible,” said Mayor Joe Collins, uncomfortable with approving the current budget. “We can pull out sample bills for a commercial person, a residential and a business, to see how it is actually going to impact them, to determine if it will be a fair shift of the burden.”

Aldermen decided to hold off on adopting the proposed budget, and meet again Thursday to revisit the issue by examining the impact of the proposed rates on town residents.

In addition to the budget hearing, officials from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voiced their concern about the treatment of the Nikwasi Mound in downtown Franklin.

EBCI Tribal Council member Diamond Brown inquired of the board what its plans were for restoring the mound. “I wasn’t really happy with what happened with the grass and what happened to the mound,” said Brown, explaining that he typically travels the nation, fighting for mound burial rights. “I wanted to know what the town’s plans were with the mound… What can we do to try to help?”

Collins replied that it was the town’s goal to allow new grass to grow up to half a foot to cut down on extensive maintenance. “Our plan is to have the mound in better condition than it was before. The plan is to let it be green, and it is no easy task to keep it maintained.” He explained that the pesticide which rendered the mound regrettably barren was applied at the administrative level and that the mound’s restoration was of utmost importance.

“What can we do to help?” asked Brown, offering the tribe’s commitment in helping with the sacred site. “We would love to see some grass on it.” With concerns to erosion, Brown indicated that the tribe may be looking into obtaining grant money to construct a fence at the perimeter of the mound.

Collins supported the notion of working with the tribe to deal with the mound, and asserted that a few foreseeable steps regarding the issue were to restore the grass and to figure out how to fence and re-designate the landmark.

“We’ve got to get the mound green and get someone in here who knows what they’re doing,” said Alderman Joyce Handley.

Alderman Bob Scott asked that the board consider reforming the now-defunct Franklin Mound Committee which includes EBCI members. He also recommended alternating committee meetings between Franklin and the reservation. “I think the town and the Eastern Band need to get together,” he said.

EBCI member TJ Holland echoed his fellow tribesman’s concern, and assured the board that he would consult with the band about the matter of joining up with Franklin officials. “Things have gone in a downward spiral between the Town of Franklin and the EBCI,” he said. “Understand on our tribe’s behalf, it was considered an insult. By our chief, an apology was demanded.”

Brown and Collins exchanged numbers to get the collaborative ball rolling.

TDA positions filled

Aldermen voted on filling two Tourism Development Authority seats, vacated by former members Ron Winecoff and Ron Haven. Winecoff, representing local real estate, decided not to seek reappointment earlier this year. Former member Ron Haven, representing the local hospitality industry, resigned recently due to a high workload.

At last month’s meeting, TDA members voted to recommend Prudential realtor Vickie Springer to fill Winecoff’s seat, and former town planner and Oak Hill Country Inn proprietor Mike Grubermann to fill Haven’s seat. Both recommendations were unanimously approved.

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