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Hallelujah: Church, jail go separate ways

Members of the Jonesborough Presbyterian Church thank God for a lot of things. And after years of suffering destruction to their place of worship, it seems parishioners now have one more thing for which to be thankful.
“For the first time since the (Washington County Detention Center) was built in the 1980s, the sewage from the jail no longer flows through the same line as the Presbyterian Church,” said Kelly Wolfe, a member of the church as well as town mayor. “All I can say is, Hallelujah!”
Throughout the last decade, the church, located on Main Street, has seen significant damage due to backed up sewer lines from the jail. It is not uncommon for inmates to purposely clog toilets in their cells to cause overflows within the facility. That, in turn, can cause backups at other locations connected to the same sewer line, locations like the church.
“We’ve been through this now three times where we have had sludge back up into the church and cause various degrees of damage,” Wolfe said. “The first time was what I would call catastrophic.”
About seven years ago, a backup left three to four inches of sewage on the floor of the church’s first level.
“In amongst the debris were (jail) uniforms, bed sheets, syringes and parts of mattresses,” Wolfe recalled. “It became our mission to eventually completely detach ourselves from the sewer line that serves the jail.”
Two less serious backups in the following years only furthered that mission.
In November 2009, when the George P. Jaynes Justice Center opened, a grinder was installed at the jail end of the sewer line to help prevent such backups.
While that has helped tremendously, it does not stop church leaders from worrying about when something will happen again.
“The only real fail safe we knew to avoid more incidents was to disconnect from that line,” Wolfe said.
That disconnection is now complete. According to Jonesborough Director of Environmental Services Hugh Thomason, a crew completed the project in late February.
The project included rerouting an 8-inch sewer line down Christopher Taylor Lane, then reconnecting it to an adjacent manhole on Main Street.
“It is a relief not to have to worry about it,” said the Rev. Allen Huff. “We’ve had some wonderful renovations to the church because of it, but we are deeply, deeply grateful to the town for doing this and fixing the problem.”
When the church experienced the first backup, the town’s liability insurance paid a claim somewhere between $70,000 and $80,000.
Church leaders used the money to renovate the damaged fellowship hall and kitchen area.
In the years since, the town got rid of its liability coverage pertaining to sewage overflows and backups. According to Town Administrator Bob Browning, the town did away with the coverage after the cost for a policy shot up to more than $30,000 a year.
Now, residents receive no money from the town for a backup like those at the church unless they can prove the town knew there was a problem and failed to address it. If a backup occurs and the town can show it took reasonable measures to prevent such incidents, no money is awarded.
Last month, the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted on first reading to change that practice by establishing a wastewater liability fund.
The fund will be used to help pay for repairs under certain circumstances.
While the town can claim it wasn’t negligent, Browning explained, a backup in its collection line may be the cause of an overflow into someone’s home. According to Browning, leaders felt it was likely the BMA might one day want to pay for at least a portion of a repair related to such an incident.
A panel will be created to review any claims and decide if a payment to a homeowner is warranted.
“We certainly intend to set the bar very high when it comes to the circumstances for which compensation can be dispensed,” Wolfe said. “The panel will thoroughly vet and scrutinize each claim.”
In establishing the fund, the BMA agreed to an annual allocation of $10,000 for the next five years. If any payments are made out of the fund, the allocation will continue until the $50,000 is replenished.
“Hopefully, over time, we have gotten better at diagnosing points where there are problems,” Wolfe said. “(But) having been on the receiving end of this, I’d say, definitely, this is a good thing.”
The BMA will vote on final reading for the fund at its April meeting.