Columbus says it’s hesitant about joining water authority

Published 12:47 pm Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Columbus officials made it clear last week that the town has not made a decision about joining a water authority. They said the towns water system is its lifeline and livelihood.

In Columbus, our water is the majority of our income and if we let that go, were going to have to raise taxes, said Columbus councilwoman Margaret Metcalf. Basically, wed be giving up our livelihood.

Metcalf said the town depends on water revenues because the town receives no tax revenue from the majority of its buildings. Many of the buildings in Columbus house county government offices, churches and non-profit organizations, which are exempt from taxes.

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Columbus officials brought up their concerns at a joint meeting held by Polk County, Columbus, Saluda and Tryon last Tuesday. This meeting, the third joint meeting of the county and towns, was specifically focused on forming a water authority. The meetings are being held at Columbus Town Hall.

Officials from Polk County, Tryon and Saluda said all four entities should be thinking about the future of the entire area.

Some Columbus council members responded that they are also concerned about the area’s future water, but they also want Columbus residents to be able to continue to afford to live there.

Polk County commissioner Warren Watson asked Columbus officials whether the town could cut expenses by consolidating with the county on some other services, such as law enforcement. Watson pointed out that the Polk County Sheriffs Office and the Columbus Police Department are virtually side by side.

But Metcalf objected to that idea.

If we give up our police department and weve given up our water, pretty soon, the countys going to be running Columbus, Metcalf said.

A few officials last week noted that Columbus is in a different situation than Tryon and Saluda because the town currently gets its water from wells and does not need the expense of a large water plant.

However, Columbus Town Manager Jonathan Kanipe pointed out that last fiscal year, Columbus water and sewer fund had to borrow from the town’s fund balance to break even.

Tryon officials seemed to be on the other end of the spectrum and said they are interested in not only a water authority, but a joint water and sewer authority.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the county and each town explained their current water and sewer systems, including how many customers each serve, water and sewer plant usage and capacity, employees it takes to run the systems, water and sewer rates, last year and this years budgeted expenditures and debt service (see table on p. 3).

Columbus has the cheapest inside water and sewer rates in the county; it is the only entity whose base water rate is under $20. Columbus inside residential base water rate is $16.65 per month, compared to Saludas, the highest, at $36.86 per month, Tryons at $22.55 per month and the countys at $20.16 per month.

Columbus and Tryons total combined debt for water and sewer systems totals $8,463,004, with $3,078,737 coming from Columbus and $5,384,267 from Tryon.

Saluda did not include total debt in last weeks presentation, but has $82,960 of debt service budgeted this year.

Polk County does not have any current debt for its water and sewer systems. The county spent $1,601,897 on water and sewer systems last fiscal year, mostly for the purchase of Lake Adger ($1.6M).

Polk County, Columbus, Saluda and Tryon have a combined total of 3,699 water customers and 1,623 sewer customers. The total capacity per day in the entire county is 2.5 million gallons for water and 2,415,000 gallons for sewer.

Water and sewer actual usage is much lower than capacity, with 997,541 total gallons of water and 487,462 gallons of sewage being used per day by residents of the county and towns.

The county and towns have 161 miles of water lines and 41 miles of sewer lines combined (not including Saluda).

Other water/sewer assets owned by the towns or county were also discussed last week including six water pump stations and 10 sewer lift stations. The available water sources and potential sources were also listed, including:

Lake Adger

Three wells and 0.6 million gallons per day of water from the Broad River Water Authority for Polk County

Four producing wells in Columbus

Two lakes and two dams in Tryon, including Lake Lanier and the town lake (from its mountain water source).

Saluda purchases its water from the City of Hendersonville.

Columbus also listed a 500,000 gallon water tank and Polk County a 132,000 gallon water tank.

All entities also included information on other assets, such as backhoes, trucks, dump trucks, a sewer line jetter (in Columbus) and a track hoe (in Tryon).

Polk County, Columbus, Saluda and Tryon officials met in August with a representative of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, which was created in 1992 in Jackson County, N.C. by the county and the towns of Dillsboro, Sylva and Webster. The Tuckaseigee representative said creating the joint water authority was challenging but worth the effort.

Officials agreed last week to ask elected officials from Dillsboro, Sylva and Webster to come to the next joint meeting to talk about how creating the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority affected the towns. Columbus Mayor Eric McIntyre was asked to contact those town officials.

This is not the first time Polk and the towns have met to create a water authority. During drought conditions earlier this decade, the group held similar joint discussions, but they broke off as a result of disagreements between the county and towns. Columbus, Tryon and Saluda decided to create a back-up system for one another and the county went on its own to create its own system.

The next joint meeting is scheduled for Jan. 11, 2011.