City officials open to water options

First Posted: 7/10/2009

With a key discussion planned Thursday on the issue, Mount Airy officials are eager to participate in water sales countywide but not at the expense of city taxpayers or by losing control of their facilities.
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has called a special meeting for Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Municipal Building, where options involving inter-local partnerships for water and sewer services across Surry will be aired.
Various possibilities have been studied by the Environmental Finance Center at the UNC School of Government using a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, and Andrew Westbrook project director of the study will attend Thursdays meeting.
While it will explore what partnership options are best for Mount Airy, some city officials already have a good idea of the direction theyd like to take, considering the huge water surplus the city has due to industry closings.
I guess my question is how long is it going to take to turn the spigot on? Commissioner Jon Cawley said Friday. He pointed out that Mount Airy already has an agreement with the county government to sell water to areas of Surry.
That question is so big to me, Cawley said, that where it (the water) goes and what kind of loops it makes are all secondary to me. He added, What Im looking for is turning the spigot on and selling water.
Commissioner Dean Brown agreed. Well, Id like to see us sell water and by doing that lower our water rates, he said. Brown added that there are many possibilities open to Mount Airy for selling its surplus, and he has even explored sales to Greensboro, based on the success of the Alaska pipeline approach.
They can surely pump water anywhere, Brown said.
Deborah Cochran, another commissioner, is looking forward to the upcoming meeting and said her eventual goal is a system that will provide clean, inexpensive water to all local citizens in need. Not only are homeowners in the county wanting service, but access to the utilities also would stimulate economic development in unserved areas.
But officials say there are financial and other considerations associated with the citys participation in a countywide water-sewer system, which also would require the facilities of Dobson, Pilot Mountain and Elkin.
Certainly the municipal systems in the county have the capacity to solve a lot of countywide water and sewer infrastructure needs, Mayor Jack Loftis said. The question, he said, is how that can be accomplished and be fair and equitable to municipal residents whose tax dollars have been spent putting their infrastructures into place.
Loftis added that the idea initially is to extend services close enough to municipalities where it makes good financial sense.
Commissioner Todd Harris said he is happy with city water agreements already in place with the county as well as Dobson, although it is a matter of time before well see the revenue stream coming from that.
Harris said he is interested in talking with anyone else wanting to buy some of Mount Airys surplus, along with courting businesses that would be heavy water users.
But he also expressed concern for protecting Mount Airy along the way. This is an asset, he said. Were going to get a fair price for it for our citizens thats our fiduciary responsibility.
Even after rate increases in two of the past three fiscal years, Mount Airys water charges are close to the median for the state, although city and county taxes are near the top. Harris is hoping that water sales by the city will allow taxes to be lowered.

Authority Not Favored
Commissioner David Beal and others say they would be reluctant to take the direction some communities have by forming a public service authority. That would involve a single entity having control over the countys water and sewer networks.
Somebody would have to sell me on that idea, said Harris, especially concerning an authoritys role in rate increases. Pointing to the utility increases imposed in the city in recent years, he said Mount Airys elected officials became a sounding board for citizen complaints and also had to face their wrath at the voting booth.
However, a central authority would not have to consider any repercussions on Election Day when it took such actions. They would be able to raise rates with virtual impunity, Harris said.
Brown said he would be reluctant to give up control over city facilities, because it could lead to other problems in addition to rate increases.
That may be a possibility, depending on who controls it, the mayor said of the water authority option for a countywide system. Whos going to maintain it, whos going to do the billing, whos going to manage it?
Turning control over to an entity that has never dealt with those matters, such as county government, would be awkward, the mayor said.
But most of the Mount Airy officials pledged to have open minds toward the available options and hope some answers will be provided Thursday.
I need more information before I can make some kind of a decision, Cochran said, and I think it is wonderful that this meeting is going to take place so we can find out more.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected] or at 719-1924.

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