BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — A proposed merger between the South Fork Utility District and Bristol Bluff City Utility District will not be decided upon Tuesday.
The South Fork Board of Directors was supposed to vote on the proposed merger during a public meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. at the Blountville courthouse.
However, Ken Hale, the attorney representing the utility district told attendees that the meeting would not take place due to a lack of quorum.
Last week, South Fork announced the proposed merger with Bristol Bluff City Utility District following a state comptroller’s investigation which found “questionable payments” of nearly $1.7 million to the utility’s district manager.
The board was also scheduled to discuss the resignations of board member Jim Graham and District Manager Garry Smith.
Hale’s announcement at the scheduled start of the meeting was met with disbelief and anger from a crowded Sullivan County Commission chambers.
But the South Fork customers in attendance asked building supervisors if they could stay and discuss the future of the utility district in their own meeting.
That was approved, and South Fork customer Keith Lunsford, who had previously called on South Fork’s current commissioners to resign, led the crowd in a discussion on how to keep South Fork Utility District active.
Multiple customers said they wanted to keep South Fork so they could be properly represented in their water district.
Lunsford led discussion on a plan to ask the current South Fork board to start the process of appointing five new commissioners to represent South Fork.
He said one board member had already resigned.
“I’m asking the existing board members that did not resign to ask the ladies within the office to go ahead and go through the process and mail the information that’s required by state law to nominate potential board members,” Lunsford said.
Another public hearing is scheduled in two weeks to further discuss South Fork’s future. Lunsford said customers will have 30 days to find new commissioners before they are approved by Sullivan County.
Sullivan County Commissioner Hershel Glover was present and spoke to customers in the impromptu meeting.
He said the South Fork board did not show up at Tuesday night’s meeting strategically to avoid having to vote on the merger.
“They really didn’t have an option,” Glover said. “They’re looking out for their customers that they represent,” Glover said.
On Thursday, the Tennessee Utility Management Review Board will review the South Fork merger. Ross Colona represented the state Comptroller’s office at the meeting.
Colona said South Fork had two options: vote voluntarily on the merger, which did not happen, or the state will move forward with a feasibility study on the best path forward for the district.
The study would determine if South Fork Utility District remaining or a merger is the best option.
“The study is completed to recognize essentially what y’all are looking for and that’s what is in the best interest of the South Fork customers,” Colona said.
But customers in attendance were largely in favor of remaining as South Fork Utility District. Despite reported increases in water bills as of late by those in attendance, they believed a new board and district manager could fix those issues.
“We need to keep it at South Fork,” said customer Ronnie Tallman. “We need to kindly take this as a slow process and do it the right way.”
It is still unclear when exactly the planned public hearing will happen.
This is a developing story. Look for updates on WJHL.com.