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Witt Utility, Ben Harris Railroaded from English Mountain

Witt Utility, Ben Harris Railroaded from English Mountain

Despite bringing the community consistent water service for the first time in nearly a decade, Witt Utility forced to back out

​​English Mountain, a small residential area in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains outside of Sevierville, has spent at least a decade suffering from regular water leaks, outages, and contamination. Until recently, the small utility board in charge of maintaining the community’s water, East Sevier County Utility District (ESCUD), operated in tandem with Alliance Water Management to maintain the crumbling infrastructure. For years, Alliance ignored leaks and let rusted pipes remain unattended, forcing the town’s long-suffering, elderly population to regularly travel five to ten miles to fill water jugs for daily usage. The board sat idly, hearing citizens' pleas but refusing to act.

Things went on like this until March of this year when enough attention was brought to the issue for the Utility Management Review Board (UMRB) to begin the process of ousting the previous ESCUD board of directors. However, the board resigned before the ouster proceedings. The old board was replaced by a new board, who terminated their contract with Alliance Water Management and began to work in collaboration with Witt Utility District (with approval from the Sevier County Mayor’s office). Ben Harris, the manager of Witt Utility, set to work immediately repairing pipes and restoring water service to English Mountain residents. For the first time in at least a decade, they had consistent water flow and a team devoted to stewarding a functioning utility system.

Since 2021, Harris has used his personal time to draft a plan and draw attention to the frequent water outages in the small mountain town. I’ve been following this story since the winter of last year, investigating and reporting on Harris’ long period of unpaid work and preparation to oust the board of directors at ESCUD and Alliance Water Management. For the last three months, the new board at ESCUD has been working with Witt to (successfully) return water to the area. Leaks have been regularly repaired and new pipe laid, all despite the negligible funds ESCUD’s previous board left to them.

But on June 8th, this past Thursday, Harris was forced to resign from his position. The state comptroller’s office denied budget approval to fund his operation, and he was the subject of a series of questionable legal allegations. Prior to his ousting, the governor’s office contacted the new board at ESCUD to tell them that, aside from Witt Utility, no one would be willing to help them.


When the new ESCUD board took over and partnered with Witt Utility, they discovered that the bank account only held $64,000, not nearly enough to address the town’s long-neglected issues, and the previous board left no record of expenditures for them to investigate. Harris’ efforts to acquire additional capital by applying for budget approval from the state Comptroller's Office were fruitless. Calls were ignored, requests went unanswered, and that was just the beginning; things would only get more complicated as time went on.

At eight o’clock one morning, on his way to ESCUD for his first day on the job, Harris was pulled over by the state police, who accused him of driving drunk. Despite his insistence that he was not intoxicated, but on his way to do his job, he was taken to the police station, where he blew a 0.0. A state officer present at the scene told Harris that “someone” was after him.

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Ross Colona, newly appointed Assistant Director to the Comptroller’s office, has a history of creating obstacles for Witt Utility District and, by extension, the Harris family. With close ties to Morristown (which has a larger utility district nearby), Colona worked as a low level financial analyst at the comptroller’s office in 2020, attempting to shut down the work of Harris’ father, the previous Witt manager. The Utility Management Review Board (UMRB) shut down this motion.

On May 17th of this year, the younger Harris was indicted by the Comptroller’s office. According to the investigative report, he’d misappropriated about $12,000 of Witt Utility resources. Unlike previous investigative reports from the office, the investigative report on Witt Utility lists a number of claims only addressing the unproven actions of Harris personally, as opposed to the management of the company as a whole. Media critics of Harris also state Witt Utility never placed “proper bids” to work in collaboration with ESCUD, even though such bids are not required for utility companies to work together.

At present, Witt Utility is set to benefit from growth in its district. A Buc-ee’s and some other commercial businesses are preparing to move into the area, bringing utility revenue with them, further complicating things.

These legal snares, combined with a lack of funding, found Harris tearfully informing a board meeting full of concerned residents that he’d be unable to continue maintaining the water on their mountain. A utility worker from another area who sat in on the meeting notified the room that while “no one wants to go without water…there’s legal liability involved in keeping it running with no one to maintain it.” The comptroller's office contended this point in an email, adding that it is not a unique situation for a utility to lose a water operator, and for the utility to keep its water running after the resignation or termination of an operator.

Nonetheless, residents were crestfallen to hear that the community of 250 would soon be without running water once again. Harris repaired a water leak the very next day as a volunteer, and tried to make clear that he would be “more than happy to continue helping” if he were given permission, along with eventual compensation for his work.

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The previous board of directors at ESCUD and Alliance Water Management were known to be corrupt, but no further official investigation has taken place. Ron Cooley, one of the new board members and a close personal friend of the ousted original chairman, was for a time the only person with keys to the utility office on English Mountain. Cooley, along with the rest of the board, had voted Harris in to aid on English Mountain, but once Harris took over, Cooley began acting questionably—refusing to sign payroll checks or to allow anyone else keys to the ESCUD office.

Eventually, other members of the ESCUD board asked Harris to change the building’s locks so they could write and sign payroll checks. Shortly after, workers found documents left directly on Cooley’s desk showing that the previous chairman of the board was receiving payment from Alliance directly.

At a recent board meeting, Cooley resigned from his position, walking out as English Mountain residents voiced support for Harris and Witt Utility. Residents cheered as he stormed away.


A representative of the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC) has been present at nearly every ESCUD board meeting since the start of Witt’s involvement in early March. Less than an hour after the ESCUD meeting on June 8th, he received a call from the comptroller’s office accusing TDEC of forcefully shutting down the water on English Mountain. This story, though false, was very quickly distributed in the local news.

Things may progress faster than is reasonable or safe as media coverage in the area increases the pressure.

An anonymous official from TDEC states that “the concern is to impact two water systems, with thousands of people out of water as an immediate impact.” Not only would this affect tens of thousands of homes in Witt Utility’s district, but also businesses—meaning the employment of many more than just Harris sits on the line. “If there’s questions [about Harris], is there any need for things to move this fast,” he posits, drawing attention to the fact that the allegations against Witt are so far entirely unproven, and decommissioning Witt will have great and immediate ramifications. “If [Colona] has a plan, it hasn’t been voiced to anybody,” he adds.

In order to protect their utility service from pressure put on by the comptroller’s office, the Witt Utility board members would have to pay around $100,000 in legal fees. Additionally, sources within the comptroller’s office have indicated that if Witt’s board shows up at a meeting to defend Harris this Friday, they will also be indicted. The comptroller's office denied this allegation.

The comptroller's office insists that UMRB will ensure help will be offered to ESCUD in the interim period, but residents still fear what ramifications may follow from being left without utility management as soon as this Friday, when the UMRB of the comptroller’s office decides whether or not Harris and (by extension) Witt will be allowed to continue to operate. This meeting will take place June 16th at 10:00 am in the Cordell Hull building.

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Almost immediately following the ESCUD board meeting, where I remained anonymous, I received emails, texts, and phone calls from concerned residents of English Mountain who felt that without Witt Utility, they would have to leave their homes for good. These continued throughout the night and into the early morning. Rogers exclaimed, “We have 250 or so water customers and about 900 sewer customers here. We should matter to the state or someone! Ben Harris and Witt were all we had.” She added that Witt had done an “amazing” job with the small amount of funds they had available.

Cindy Mitchell, another resident of the mountain, addressed the problem of “several players on the mountain that are trying to appear helpful and informative,” calling them “underhanded” and hoping that Harris had grounds for harassment charges against them. She added that she was “furious and sad” that these “players” were trying to railroad Harris, as he had done “nothing but good for [their] community.”

One statement at the ESCUD board meeting brought tears to my eyes, as an elderly woman stood, preemptively excused her language, and spoke:

“Are the politics in this state and this county so g-d corrupted that it's alright if hundreds of people up here don’t have water? What is their goal? They want us to pay some dollars? What is the problem? Who aren’t we paying off? Who’s afraid of not getting paid off? What is going on? We’ve gone way past the state level. And if we were smart, we’d put together a class action lawsuit, and go after every one of those son-of-a-bitches! It’s not right. I’m sorry.”

Applause echoed gently throughout the room.


CORRECTIONS After the story was published on Tuesday, June 13th, The Pamphleteer received an email from the comptroller's office clarifying two points: 1) UMRB did not terminate the contract with Alliance, the new ESCUD board did, and 2) the comptroller's office does not directly provide funding for any utility system. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.