EARLY — For the 22 years it has been in service, Wade Walker has worked at the city’s water treatment plant on Hillcrest and figures he knows it “from one end to the other.”

It has been a good plant and still delivers good, safe drinking water, said Walker, who is the city’s utilities director and one of the plant’s three operators. But technology and new state rules and regulations have passed it by, and it is operating at the edge of its capacity of 2 million gallons a day, Walker said.

“They’ve got to do something,” he said.

While acknowledging the plant’s shortcomings, Walker isn’t offering an opinion on whether the city should build a new water treatment plant and continue treating raw water it buys from the Brown County Water Improvement District — or get out of the water business, pay for a new water line and start buying treated water.

He’s leaving that discussion to Early City Council members, and whatever decision they make, “I’ll be here,” Walker said.

A few weeks ago, council members had all but decided to get out of the water treatment business, take the pipeline option and buy treated water. Their plan stalled recently, however, when council members learned the city will be required to pay a “back debt service” on $20.49 million bonds the City of Brownwood guaranteed for the construction of the water district’s new treatment plant.

The water district’s counsel, Bill Bell, has said the back debt service is part of the bond covenant. Early officials anticipate the city’s cost would be somewhere around $100,000.

Early Mayor Bob Mangrum said either option — new pipeline or new plant — would cost $5 million to $8 million, although the pipeline would be cost slightly less than a plant. Mangrum said while he doesn’t like the back debt service “on principle,” he believes the pipeline plan is still the best for the city. He said for close to the same amount of money, the city’s choice is a pipeline that will last 50 years, or a new water treatment plant that will be outmoded in 20 years.

Mayor pro-tem David Gray disagrees. Gray said the back debt payment would, in effect, force the city to pay “a fairly sizeable tap fee.” In addition, water customers would be required to help service the water district’s bonds through their water bills, and the city would still have to pay to keep the existing water plant running until the new pipeline is built, Gray said.

“I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’m very upset about what’s going on on this,” Gray said. “I think we were misled. I’m opposed to (the pipeline plan) as it stands right now.”

Gray also said while he’s not “closed-minded” to the pipeline plan, it will be hard to convince him to agree to the back debt requirement. He said he wants the council to “at least take a real hard look at it before we take action.”

Mangrum said he understands Gray’s viewpoint. “In the big picture it is a small item,” Mangrum said of the back debt service. “The choice is to borrow $6 million and build a water plant that lasts 20 years, or build a pipeline that lasts 50 years,” Mangrum said. “I can’t look at (the back debt service) as a deal-breaker. I think a better use of the money will be to build something that will be 50 years old before we have to worry about it.”

Mangrum also said the city would have to find and hire an operator with a Class B license to run a new plant. Walker has a Class C license, but the state has allowed the existing plant to operate with Sam Oswood, the water district’s former general manager, working as a consultant. Oswood has a Class A license. Early’s previous Class B-licensed operator resigned last year.

There aren’t many Class B operators in the state looking for jobs, Mangrum said.

Mangrum said he has an idea of what council members might decide to do, but he declined to elaborate.

Council member Janice Bush said she wasn’t ready to comment on the matter, and council members Benny Allcorn, William Kelcy and Pat Drew were unavailable for comment.

Dennis Spinks, interim general manager of the water district, said the district “would like to see (Early) go on line with us. It’s to their benefit to go ahead and do it.” But the district will understand if the city decides to build a new plant and continue treating its own water, and the district will continue selling the city untreated water, Spinks said.