County, not city, playing games with potential economic development

By John Peters

March 6, 2014

The long-awaited, much-talked-about Interstates Water and Sewer project is close to fruition. All Mount Airy has to do is agree to clean up Surry County’s mess — at considerable cost to the city — and all is well and good.

The project is a multi-million dollar effort that will extend sewer services along Pine Street to its intersections with Interstates 77 and 74 — a prerequisite for anticipated commercial development at both of those interchanges.

The project would benefit Mount Airy and Surry County, not to mention individuals in both localities. The city will benefit from servicing the area and taking in the revenue from sewer customers who sign on. The county will benefit by seeing that area develop, which will increase tax revenue for the county.

And local individuals stand to benefit through investment of opening and operating businesses there — or selling land to others who can — while more individuals could benefit from jobs created by such development.

The financing is in place, and all that’s needed is a formal agreement between the city and county, to be followed by securing easements from land owners along the way.

Leaders in both the city and county have long wanted this project, so there should be no problem, right?

Unfortunately, that may not the case. County commissioners have made it known they are really not interested in working with the city unless Mount Airy commissioners will agree to take on the money-losing water and sewer system in the Bannertown/Flat Rock area of the county.

In fact, a draft agreement written up by the county includes the city’s take-over of the poorly managed Bannertown/Flat Rock system as part of the Interstates 77 and 74 project.

Those two projects, in reality, have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and the county is trying to bully the city into taking on the money-loser, with the implicit threat that the city will be painted as an impediment to economic development — and jobs — if it refuses to go along with this county scheme.

The real problem is in how the Bannertown/Flat Rock water and sewer lines were set up in the beginning. While individual property owners may find this practice distasteful, the only way to make such projects financially feasible is generally to require hook-ups, or charge a regular non-user fee for those individuals who refuse to be part of the new system.

Politically, that’s sometimes a difficult thing for an elected leader to do — require his constituents to do something they don’t like — in exchange for ensuring the success of the overall project.

The Surry County Board of Commissioners, for whatever reason, opted not to make the difficult, but proper, decision to require hook-ups when the Flat Rock sewer and water lines were extended. As a result of shrinking from their duties as leaders, the commissioners ensured this would be a financial drain on the county.

Now, the board is seeking to dump the results of that bad decision on the city.

County Chairman Eddie Harris said his board is willing to discuss and negotiate some parts of the proposed agreement. Perhaps the city should make part of its negotiation a demand that the county go back and require hook-ups by land owners to the Bannertown and Flat Rock water and sewer lines.

Then, and only then, should the city consider taking on those lines.

Until then, the Flat Rock/Bannertown water and sewer lines should be off the table when it comes to discussions over the Interstates Water and Sewer Projects. And if the county board refuses to proceed, local residents need to understand it is not the city that’s standing in the way of needed economic development.