The situation hasn’t exactly reached Cold War proportions, but relations between Mount Airy and Surry County governing officials are noticeably icier these days.
Tension has long existed between the city and county commissioners to varying extents, sometimes dictated by strong personalities and egos among individual board members who’ve served over the years.
In the past decade or so, however, a distinct improvement has occurred which has paralleled the need for increasing interlocal competition on projects benefiting both the city and county.
Such joint efforts have been dominated by water and sewer projects reflecting Mount Airy’s desire for out-of-city utility customers to compensate for industry closings, while Surry officials have sought to serve areas in need of connections for economic development and residences. There also has been cooperation on industrial projects with common interests including jobs for citizens and property tax revenues.
But instead of bringing local communities together, just such an effort recently has threatened to drive the city and county governing boards apart. It concerns a request by Surry officials last year that Mount Airy take over the county’s water-sewer system in the Flat Rock/Bannertown communities.
“I do believe that is a sticking point,” Paul Johnson a longtime county commissioner, confirmed Thursday.
Johnson also referred to an overall lack of mutual cooperation between Surry County and Mount Airy during a county board meeting earlier this month. The catalyst for this was a request by the municipality that the county assist in the cost of grading and preparing a shovel-ready site for a prospective manufacturer in Westwood Industrial Park in northwest Mount Airy.
Commissioner Johnson said during that meeting he believes the county should put the request on hold until the Flat Rock/Bannertown water-sewer issue is addressed by the city. Johnson also indicated that Surry’s input in the Westwood project would be premature at this point since it is still in the early stages.
Yet Johnson readily admitted Thursday that he has not appreciated the way Mount Airy reacted, or not reacted, to attempts to discuss the water-sewer issue.
This included trying several times to arrange a meeting with city representatives, including multiple email and telephone communications that Johnson said were ignored. “We never could get a meeting set up,” he added, equating such a snub to not responding to a constituent’s contact.
“If a citizen calls me and wants me to call them back, they want me to call back as quick as I can,” Johnson said, not in a couple of weeks or months — or never.
“Sit-Down Meeting” Sought
Reports of Johnson’s comments regarding a decline in mutual cooperation at the recent county meeting have struck a chord with Mount Airy officials, who discussed them at the end of a city council meeting last week when commissioners offered general observations.
Multiple council members cited the situation with the county and expressed a desire to keep an apparent problem between the two governing bodies from festering.
“I’m willing to ask for a sit-down meeting so we can clear this up and move forward,” said one city commissioner, Jon Cawley.
It was mentioned during the city council session that liaison meetings were being held on a monthly basis with the county government. These typically have included a couple of members from each board along with the city and county managers and other staff members gathering to discuss joint projects.
But no one can recall the last time a liaison meeting was held.
Another city commissioner asked if all council members should be present for the meeting Cawley now seeks, which he believes should be the case. “I think the entire board would be much more effective,” Cawley said.
He said this meeting represents a chance to “get in front of each other” and iron out things face-to-face rather than through the newspaper.
“We really need to know where we stand,” Cawley added.
Another loose end involves a city-county project to extend sewer service from Mount Airy along the N.C. 89-West corridor to a cluster of businesses in the Interstates Water and Sewer District at interstates 74 and 77.
Last year, Mount Airy committed up to $1 million for its share of the project, and concern was expressed at last week’s city meeting that nothing seemingly has occurred since.
Johnson said Thursday, however, that the interstates project is progressing. “We’re moving on it,” he said.
Johnson also expressed a willingness Thursday to be part of a joint meeting — saying he has not been notified about it so far — although he doesn’t believe a major rift exists between the two sides.
“I don’t see that our relationship is deteriorating,” Johnson said, classifying the present impasse as “just a misunderstanding” regarding the Flat Rock/Bannertown utility issue.
After the county asked the city to take over the system there, an analysis showed Mount Airy would receive about $48,000 less revenue each year compared to the present situation in which it sells the two services.
Surry is now losing money on those due to a long-term debt arrangement to finance utility lines for the system which won’t be retired until 2047. Because mandatory hookups were not required by property owners in the areas in question, money the county receives in user fees is insufficient to retire the debt and it is losing money.
The deal proposed by the county included the municipality making annual lease payments to the county of $136,825 for the utility infrastructure in the Flat Rock/Bannertown Water and Sewer District. This has been viewed by city officials as taking over a losing proposition from the county.
But Johnson said Mount Airy stands to benefit all the same.
“They would still be making money,” he said regarding city leaders’ comments about a decline in revenues when leased payments are weighed against user fees.
“It’s a win-win situation.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.