ELIZABETHTON — Johann Coetzee is the longest serving department head in the city, but he has been busy for the past two weeks learning his new job as director of utilities.
The job is a newly created position that brings together the three city-owned public utilities — water, sewer and electricity — under one director. Until this month, the utilities were operated as separate departments of the city.
“The city manager (Fred Edens) has been working on this for several months,” Coetzee said during an interview Thursday. “I only became formally aware of if recently, after the reorganization started.”
Coetzee could see the logic in the new organization.
“The utilities are different from the other city organizations,” Coetzee said. “The utility departments work under enterprise funds.”
Enterprise funds are financial accounts in city governments that are funded by the customers through fees and must be kept separate from the revenues in the city’s general fund.
Another difference from the rest of the city departments is the size and complexity of the utilities. They often extend much further than the city limits.
Coetzee said the sewer system in Elizabethton is pretty much confined to the city limits. It has 5,500 customers and includes 80 miles of sewer lines and a wastewater treatment plant located on the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals Drive.
The water system extends outside the city limits and includes the North Elizabethton utility as a customer. It has 265 miles of water lines, 10 water storage tanks and a 75-mile service area. It has 12,500 customers.
The electric system extends into four counties, has nine substations, 21 miles of transmission lines and 830 miles of distribution lines. It has 26,000 customers.
“I think the fact the city’s utilities extend into the counties is by no means unique in the United States or Tennessee, but it means we realize we have a responsibility for a large percentage of the people in the area,” Coetzee said.
“Furthermore, we understand the utilities, especially the electric division, have a role to play in economic development and job creation in the region we serve.”
With a total of 44,000 service accounts, Coetzee said one of his personal goals is to work to improve customer service in the three utilities. “That is very important to us. We want our customers to enjoy an efficient service so that they have a trust that the rates they are paying will not include inefficiencies.”
Coetzee said there are infrastructure problems with the utilities that need to be addressed. The city has been struggling for years with a leaky and obsolete water system that loses more than half the water it produces.
To combat the problem, the City Council set aside funds in the 2011-12 budget to create a special team dedicated to finding and correcting leaks in the system.
In comparison, the city’s electric system is in much better shape, especially since the council authorized a $20 million bond issue to rebuild the system’s substations.
Coetzee has been with the city of Elizabethton since 1995, when he was hired by then-City Manager Charlie Stahl as head of the wastewater treatment department. Before that, Coetzee lived in South Africa, where he worked in heavy construction, mining and civil engineering. He was involved in several major projects to build infrastructure for boomtown-type development.
Before that, he worked on his family’s farm, which raised hogs and dairy cattle.
“I could not have been a more typical South African if I tried,” Coetzee said of the first 35 years of his life.
He was different in one respect. He said “I have always been an admirer of the U.S. Constitution,” Coetzee said.
That was one thing that attracted Coetzee when he and his family decided to visit the United States in 1993.
“We fell in love with the country,” Coetzee said. Then he was offered a job in Elizabethton.
“Over the years we have become very invested in Elizabethton. It has truly become home for us,” Coetzee said.
His wife, Suze, is an occupational therapist and was once the national rehabilitation director for the Indian Ocean nation of the Seychelles. She was the youngest woman ever to become a dean at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town. She continues her work as rehabilitation manager at Pine Ridge Nursing Home in Elizabethton.
Their children, Gerrit and Johanna, are both graduates of Elizabethton High School. Gerrit is studying mechanical engineering at Tennessee Technological University and Johanna is studying architecture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
All four Coetzees became naturalized citizens of the United States this year.
While he is enjoying his new legal status, Coetzee joked that with his new job he can no longer enjoy the variations of the weather. When it rains, he said it is good for the water system but puts heavy strains on the sewer system. When a heavy snow falls it is also good for the water system but it is sure to cause power outages somewhere in the electric system’s four-county service area.