Elizabethton combines water, wastewater departments

John Thompson • Sep 17, 2012 at 9:15 AM

ELIZABETHTON — Some of the most vital functions of a city government involve providing clean and plentiful fresh water and the safe disposal of used water. At first glance, the two missions appear to be quite different, but for Elizabethton’s utility director, Johann Coetzee, the two missions are quite similar.

That was one of the reasons behind Elizabethton’s recent move to consolidate and streamline its water and wastewater departments. Coetzee said there are many other good reasons to consolidate, such as streamlining operations, getting a more diverse staff and enjoying the benefits of economies of scale.

Coetzee said the combining of the two departments makes sense from a holistic point of view.

“With the water department, we take water from the state’s streams, we prepare it for safe consumption, distribute it to our customers. Then we take the wastewater, clean it up and return it back to the state’s streams,” Coetzee said.

While the two departments could be seen as two halves of a cycle, Coetzee said the city’s organizational chart traditionally made them two independent departments. They competed against each other for a share of the city’s funding and other resources. They had divided goals and priorities.

In the marketplace, competition can lead to better prices for consumers, but when two departments are competing against each other within an organization, it can prove costly to citizens because of conflicting priorities and the need to duplicate equipment for each department.

Coetzee said that by combining the two departments there could be unified citywide goals. The fact that Johnson City and Kingsport also had combined management of their utilities helped to sell the idea to the Elizabethton City Council.

Combining the departments creates several advantages, Coetzee said. It means less duplication of equipment and personnel. A backhoe might be shared. Water plant employees might be called to assist the wastewater workers in an emergency.

Coetzee said that is what happened during a cloud burst in early August. With huge amounts of storm water overwhelming the wastewater collection system, Coetzee saw water plant employees helping wastewater plant employees. The best part was there was integration — water and wastewater employees were working side by side.

That doesn’t mean there will be a consolidation of positions. Coetzee said operators are licensed whether they work in water or wastewater fields.

Another advantage Coetzee was able to realize was the elimination of two senior management positions by the way in which he reorganized the departments.

Under the old organization, both the water and the wastewater departments had three senior managers — a general manager, a plant manager and a construction manager.

Under the new organization, the two top managers are Ed Mullins, the water and wastewater facilities manager, and Jim Roberts, the construction manager. Two veteran managers in the city, Doug Cornett and Eric Davis, assist them. The construction manager positions that had formerly been part of each department have been eliminated. Although they have titles, Coetzee said the three of them work as a management team.

Mullins has been manager of the city’s wastewater plant for five years. He has mostly been involved in the wastewater operations for the past 20 years, but has had some experience with water plants.

Mullins began his career with the town of Abingdon, Va., in 1992. Looking for bigger challenges, Mullins went on to work for Washington County, Va., and Kingsport.

Coetzee said during the past four years Mullins has been wastewater plant manager at Elizabethton, the city has won four consecutive awards for operational excellence by the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association. The association annually gives one award to a facility in Kentucky and one to a Tennessee facility.

“I have to give the staff credit, they know their jobs,” Mullins said of the honors. He said his contribution was to bring more up-to-date techniques to the operations.

The other senior manager, Roberts, has worked in both the private and public sector. He has worked in construction for 35 years and owned his own construction company for 15 years. He has been working for Elizabethton for a year and a half.

Coetzee was familiar with Roberts’ construction work because he did several projects in Elizabethton, including site preparation for the Fatz and Applebee’s restaurants.

Roberts will be kept busy as the city has $4.374 million in construction projects set to start or already under way.

These include $2.8 million for a three-phase wastewater project that includes replacing dewatering equipment at the wastewater treatment plant. A side part of that project is to bring into operation a spare oxidation ditch.

Coetzee said those projects will replace equipment installed in 1987 “that has outlived its design lifespan by about a decade.” The other portion of the project will replace some 1970s-era technology. It will also speed up the process.

Another part of the project is to replace the Lions Field Pump Station, which has been in operation for 40 years. He said that project has the added benefit that it will bypass another pump station, so the city will not have to pump the same wastewater twice.

A separate wastewater project is to refurbish and rebuild a section of the sewer system on the East Side of town. It is being funded with a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant with a $75,000 match. Coetzee hopes to qualify for two more block grants in the coming years to completely replace the sewer system in East Side. The first phase will concentrate on Walker and Riverview streets.

A project on the water side is the bypass line to Hampton Springs. This will replace some of the city’s oldest lines. The water source provides more than half the city’s water supply.

More than half the city’s water supply is being lost to leaks, and a new team has been organized to find and repair as many of those leaks as possible. The team is just another example of how the water and wastewater employees of Elizabethton are working for a more efficient and streamlined operation.

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