Residents and state leaders push back against bill allowing private companies to purchase public utilities
A new bill introduced in Tennessee's legislature has some Chattanoogans and state leaders uneasy.
House Bill 1291 and Senate Bill 1214 could allow privately-owned corporate utilities to purchase public government utilities.
State leaders and community members, including those from at least five districts in Hamilton County, are worried that the deal might raise the cost of water, make it difficult for customer service, and remove transparency.
Larry Hanson, a longtime Collegedale resident has been a customer with Eastside Utility District for 53 years.
He has paid water bills for his own and home and six of his rental properties, and told Channel 3 he has never had an issue.
“I like the fact that if I'm not happy with the way things are going, I can go to my county commissioner about it. I can call Eastside Utility District. I think that's a little bit easier than dealing with an 800 number or trying to get hold of some authority in a private company,” Hanson said.
Hanson’s signature is on the “Protect Our Water” petition, a community-led movement that got nearly 800 signatures.
Tennessee American Water, a private company and huge water-provider for the state, says “this new legislation is entirely permissive and does not allow for hostile takeover.” They say “public utilities must agree to sell to the private utility in order for the sale to take place.”
With the cost of water essentially rising from being in private hands and concerns from community members like Hanson, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem from District 28 told Channel 3 in a statement he thinks the idea needs more study.
"The issue in this instance is one that I think is complex and it goes to the heart of local communities being able to control their water. I don't think we should dismiss what private entities may be able to do but my first response is that this needs more study and try not to have a knee jerk reaction in either direction," Rep. Hakeem said.
State Rep. Mike Carter from District 29 is also opposed to the bill as it is currently drawn.
He says “given that the current law provides that the comptroller may take over a district if it loses money two years in a row and that this protects citizens from poor management.”
As for Hanson, he wants to see local government thrive.
"I've just had such good experiences with public utilities. I feel the public can do a good job, the government can do an efficient job so I tend to lean towards municipalities being in charge of their utilities."
The bill is set to go in front of legislators early next year.