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Gainesville Public Utilities saves money, but at a cost
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The economy is affecting water and sewer service in Gainesville more than customers may realize.

The city’s Public Utilities Department, facing an unprecedented decline in revenues, has cut costs in nearly every way. Department officials say the cuts are affecting the department’s level of customer service, although customers may never even notice.

And while the changes may save the department money now, it cannot afford to keep them in place for very long.

The halted housing market and drought-inspired water restrictions have hit the department’s revenue stream hard. Financial projections for 2009 show that the economy knocked $9 million out of the department’s revenues since 2007.

To survive, the department spent the last two years whittling away at its expenses. Capital projects and large equipment purchases were the first to go last year when the drought first limited water sales.

Today, with the housing market at a standstill, the department finds itself cutting deeper into its budget. Recent adjustments go as far as eliminating an annual contract for floor mat rental to save the department about $5,500, according to data that department officials compiled for a planning workshop.

But other cuts are more relevant to the service that customers have come to expect.

Recently, the department has received national and statewide honors for its facilities, awards utility director Kelly Randall attributed to the department’s attention to "preventative maintenance" at the time.

"We’ve been an award-winning organization, because we have a proactive maintenance program, not a reactive maintenance program," Randall said.

But during the recession, such work has taken a back seat to saving money.

"I hate to say it, but preventative maintenance is the issue that always gets cut back first," Randall said. "And if you aren’t able to restore that, that will bite you within time."

To save in the short term, the department eliminated contracts with a company that chemically controlled root growth in sewer lines. To save fuel, the department shut down one of two trucks designed to clean sewer lines.

As a result, fewer of the department’s 283 miles of sewer lines are cleaned, so department employees must cut roots out of sewer lines themselves. Such in-house efforts are cheaper, but the cost-saving
measures could have expensive consequences in years to come.

"But just like any pruning job you do, often when you cut something, it sprouts two roots out of what used to be one root," Randall said. "It kind of exacerbates the problem, and you need to go back and cut it out more and more."

In other cost-saving efforts, Stanley Mize, manager of the department’s water and wastewater treatment services, said the department has begun bypassing some of its wastewater treatment processes. The changes have cut some $200,000 out of the department’s expenses, but resulted in water being returned to Lake Lanier from the Flat Creek Water Reclamation Facility that isn’t as clean.

Despite the cost-saving measures, Mize said that the department is meeting its permit requirements.

"We can’t emphasize that enough," Mize said.

But in 2007, the facility was recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for its ability to return water to Lake Lanier with a level of pollutants far below state requirements. Then, the sewage plant was sending water into the lake with a phosphorous concentration of 0.05 parts per million. Today, that phosphorous concentration of closer to a 0.08 parts per million, Mize said.

Most of the treatment cuts are OK for now, because, thanks to drought-related water restrictions, customers are sending less sewage to the Flat Creek facility, Mize said.

"As flows increase, it may require us to put those back in service," Mize said.

And because of the recession, the slowdown in development has allowed the department to save money on personnel. But the eliminated positions are not ones that Randall says he can go without forever.

The department currently has 18 vacant positions. Randall said he may have to cut more jobs related to development before the next fiscal year begins in July.

"As soon as the economy comes back and water sales go back (up), I’ll be right back (to City Council) asking to fill them," he said. "These are positions we’re not filling because we have a critical need right now to try to save dollars, and not having these positions is likely to have an affect on the quality of customer service that we can provide."

The staff reduction requires the utility department to be more reactive on maintenance issues than in the past. There now are fewer people in the field checking pump stations and lines for potential problems, Randall said.

"I think we can do that on the short term, but it certainly is not something that cannot be maintained on the long term," Randall said.

Until then: "We’re just going to have to ... dance a little closer to the edge," Randall said.