The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 4, 2012

Limestone County schools to see sewage costs rise

By Kim West
kwest@athensnews-courier.com



The Limestone County Water & Sewer Authority has notified Limestone County Schools that the school system’s monthly sewage bill will increase in the coming months.

The school system currently pays $24,401.06 per month in pre-negotiated payments — $9,666.67 for sewage and $14,734.39 in principal interest on a bond payment for capital improvements and maintenance. 

Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk announced the figures during the Nov. 15 Limestone County Board of Education work session.

The figures are based on a three-year contract signed by then-Superintendent Dr. Barry Carroll and then-LCWSA General Manager Tony Sneed in 2006 and renewed in 2009.

Sisk was hired as superintendent in June, and Byron Cook became the general manager for LCWSA in June 2010. The sewage contract was renewed in 2009 for another three-year term, but it expired in October and was not renewed by the Water & Sewer Authority.

Perception differences

According to Sisk, the school system provided $2.2 million to build 10 sewage treatment sites, which were “deeded over to the Limestone County Water & Sewer.”

“In exchange, we paid a locked-in rate (for sewage),” Sisk said. “They came to us and said they were operating at a loss. They’ve had to put $5 million or $6 million into these facilities … they had an administrative change and a different vision for Limestone County Water & Sewer.”

Cook did not specify the cost per thousand of gallons for LCWSA, which has flow meters to gauge usage at the treatment sites.

“There are 13 to 15 package treatment plants in the county, and we’ve been trying to eliminate some of them and turn some of them into pump stations for treatment,” Cook said.

Both sides agree an increase is warranted in lieu of the expired contract, but they differ on which costs the school system should pay.

LCWSA wants the increase based on the breakdown of costs, which Cook said includes labor, maintenance and chemicals. Sisk said the amount should be based on usage by the schools and estimated the school system would be paying “as high as $60,000 a month” based on the LCWSA’s cost estimates.

“The contract had a set fee, and it expired this year,” Cook said. “It was undervalued the first time … the Limestone County Water & Sewer Authority operated basically at a loss for those years, and we’re trying to break even. We’re not trying to make money.

“You can look at it one of two ways, a breakdown of costs or the cost per thousand gallons … we’re trying exactly to give cost analysis, and we have to account for costs.”

“I do believe we should pay for what we use,” Sisk said. “Never in my 25 years of education have I received a utility bill that had costs broken down for labor, depreciation of labor and chemicals. You would think these are associated with the costs of doing business.

“Their intention is not to cut us off, and I think they have tried to help us. They have a perception of what’s fair to them, and we have a perception of what’s fair for us.”

Timing of increase

The LCWSA met with county school officials in October to discuss the increase, which will not take effect until an agreement has been reached. They will negotiate again Jan. 10 in an administrative session that will include Cook, Sisk, Limestone County Schools Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Craft and School Board President Bret McGill.

“They have a genuine desire to work with us, but their backs are against the wall because they are operating at a loss … personally, I’d like to pay like any other customer,” Sisk said. “Had they brought this to us before we made our board budget, we probably could have accounted for it.”

The increase is expected to take effect during the 2012-13 fiscal year, which runs from October to September for both entities.

“We’d like to get it done as soon as possible, but we’re cognizant of the fact of their budget already being set — ours is already set, too,” Cook said. “We hope to have it incrementally (increased) before then (October 2013).

“We know they have a new superintendent and their budget is fixed. We’re not trying to gouge them — we’re just trying to cover costs.”