The Macon Water Authority voted unanimously Thursday to propose a deal that would pay the city of Macon a total of $7.6 million over 25 years to help maintain the city’s levee and close its landfill.
The authority also approved making the first payment of about $305,000 on the books of its 2010 fiscal year, which ended Thursday, if the city agrees to the deal, said authority Director Tony Rojas.
Authority Chairman Frank Amerson, who has served on the authority since it was created to take over the city’s crumbling water and sewer system in 1974, said the authority is not legally obligated to pay any of this money to the city. There was no contractual agreement putting the authority in the city’s debt for the assets the city transferred to it, mostly in the form of bond revenue, totaling around $9.1 million.
The proposed agreement reduces this total, based on work the authority has done on the levee and about $1.2 million in hospital revenue bonds the authority helped pay off in 1982.
“But this was a way to pay back city taxpayers for money they had paid in the 1970s,” said Amerson, who says he has repeatedly tried to return the favor by helping the city deal with its aging landfill.
An attempt about a decade ago failed to get state legislative approval for the authority to fund the purchase of property for a new landfill. In the years since, Amerson said he has approached other Macon mayors to make offers similar to the one the board approved this week.
But he was turned down, Amerson says, because the offer always comes with strings attached: The money can only be used for landfill closure and postclosure costs, estimated at about $9.6 million, or for maintenance and improvements to the city’s levee.
And under the contract, the authority would maintain control of the funds. The money would be placed in an account opened by the authority, and the authority would have to approve the city’s expenditures from it, including helping choose contractors and engineers.
“Different city governments wanted the money without any controls,” Amerson said. “Well, in my experience with city government, the money just disappears or goes to a use that’s not the intended use.”
Amerson said he has met with Macon Mayor Robert Reichert to discuss the major elements of the contract and found Reichert receptive.
“This is the last time they’re going to get a chance to get the water authority’s money,” Amerson said, explaining that he’s not making the offer again.
The agreements states that the authority is focusing on the landfill and levee because the landfill preserves clean, safe drinking water and the levee protects the Lower Poplar sewage treatment plant from flooding.
In recent years, the city had considered asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decommission the lower portion of the levee, which protects mostly southern brick yards and the treatment plant.
The authority, however, would lose its federally backed flood insurance for the plant if this happened. That could be financially disastrous for the utility if the plant suffered another flood like the 1994 flood caused by Tropical Storm Alberto, which caused about $4.5 million in damage there, Amerson said.
The authority already spent about $312,000 to remove trees from the levee last year to bring it back into compliance with Corps of Engineers rules, and protecting the levee remains a way to protect the authority’s investment, Amerson said.
The authority also replaced many pipes around the levee in Central City Park after a collapsed sewer pipe started to undermine the levee during high water last year.
The funds in the new account could be used to remove trees, fill or remove abandoned sewer pipes near the levee or other maintenance. City officials have said there may be an old, unused pipe under the levee that is not capped and is undermining the stability of the levee during heavy rains. Such pipes may have been installed when the sewer system was still owned by the city, Rojas said. Either way, these funds could be used for dealing with that.
If funds contributed by the authority under the agreement are used for the landfill, they must be used to deal with its closure and the monitoring process that follows. The agreement prohibits the authority’s money from paying for financial shortfalls or regulatory problems from the landfill’s operation.
Macon Finance Director Tom Barber said landfill closure costs are now estimated at about $9.59 million. The city’s landfill closure fund has $340,000 in it from last year’s budget, and there are plans to put another $340,000 into it this year — leaving it about $8.9 million short of what’s needed.
State documents say Macon’s landfill will run out of room in about nine years. The landfill was built without a liner.
Bill Causey, who manages the city’s engineering department, said he’s heard no talk about costly long-term improvements needed for the levee.
The agreement states that the authority will not assume liability for the operation of the landfill or its state environmental permits.
However, it authorizes the authority to collect information on the operation and management of the landfill, including meeting with representatives of any regulatory agency or representatives of Cherokee Brick and Tile Co. Amerson and Rojas both said this clause was intended to deal only with the methane collection system at the landfill, although the contract does not state this.
“It has to do with closing the landfill, not operating the landfill,” Amerson said.
Under the agreement, the authority would stop making payments if the city consolidates with Bibb County and the resulting government decides to charge the authority a franchise fee.
Writers Mike Stucka and Phillip Ramati contributed to this report, which included information from Telegraph archives . To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.