ELKIN — Faced with a looming deadline described by officials as the “point of no return,” the Surry County Board of Commissioners is in the process of trying to determine whether the county can afford to move forward with the much-anticipated Interstates Sewer Project.
During its retreat Friday, the board discussed the project at length, learning that with the impending tight budget year a decision must be made in the coming weeks as to whether it can afford to invest another $2.5 million for the combined force main/gravity system requested by Mount Airy.
Since the December nod by the Surry County Board of Commissioners to authorize Galax, Va.-based engineering firm Adams Heath to begin work on the final design for the $4.5-million combined gravity and force-main system, target dates are coming fast and furious.
“Things are moving along nicely, and so far we’re staying on schedule, but there are a few hurdles to overcome before we’ll know anything concrete,” County Manager Chris Knopf said prior to Friday’s meeting.
Those hurdles involve securing a formal funding agreement with the city of Mount Airy, submitting finalized plans to the state and securing easements from the affected property owners.
The plan, which would extend sewer service to the Interstates 77 and 74 areas west of Mount Airy, seeks to stimulate growth in what officials have identified as a prime development area near the two highways.
The city has pledged $1 million to the project, provided the county uses the combined system, which would offer more capacity and the ability to connect Gentry Middle and North Surry High schools to the service.
In addition to the $1 million in funding pledged to the project by Mount Airy, the county has secured $1 million in funding from the Rural Center, and an additional $300,000 in funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $200,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation, $150,000 through a federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), and a pledge of about $160,000 from property owners in the district.
That leaves about $2.5 million, when all is said and done, that will have to be paid by the county, Knopf said, noting that the county will most likely have to take on more debt to pay for the project.
The county has an April 19 deadline to finalize approval of all funding for the project.
“In my estimation, that’s the point of no return,” Knopf said Friday. “At that time we, and the city, need to finalize the fact that yes, we’re doing this.”
Once the funding agreement has been secured, the county is facing a March 15 deadline for submitting final engineering plans to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Pending approval of the drawings, the county will begin securing property rights and easements from affected property owners.
Knopf has said the county has a March 18 deadline to get the process started.
“We want to just start talking to them about the easements,” he said. “Previous talks indicate their willingness to work with us, and we want to ensure that we cover those bases in order to stay on schedule.”
He added that once the county reaches an agreement with the city, meets the deadline to submit final drawings to the state and secures easements, things should start moving pretty quickly.
“If we stay on schedule, and right now we are on schedule, the start of construction could be around July 29, and the entire project could be completed about a year later,” Knopf said.
But right now, the final drawings are still a work in progress.
“We’re still working on the engineering drawings that incorporate the combined system,” Knopf said. “By the time we submit the plans to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, that work should be finished.
“There are four to six weeks before the drawings will be complete,” he added. “And after they’re completed, we will begin looking to secure all easements and pump station lots.”
Without those easements, the project can’t move forward, the county manager cautioned.
“Any issues there could involve a design change,” he said, adding that once the final designs are completed, any design change could send the entire project back to the drawing board.
The goal, according to Knopf, is to begin advertising for a construction company by mid-May.
But Friday, questions remained as to whether the county can afford to spend the money in these difficult financial times.
“So the question is whether or not we should move ahead with this project, and we have an April 19 deadline here where we will have to give it the OK even though we haven’t formulated a budget at that time,” said Board Chairman Eddie Harris. “We’re going to have to weigh the consideration of whether we can afford this, with the gravity system costing us $2.5 million out of the county’s budget, and putting on debt we don’t want to incur, or move forward with the force main system and cancel the gravity system, which would mean we’re not going to be able to take on the schools as customers.”
Harris said the next move is obvious.
“We need to go back to Mount Airy and have a more detailed discussion with them, and by April 19 either put this project off or figure out how to pay for it,” he said.
Reach Keith Strange at email@example.com or 719-1929.