Polk invites towns to join water contract: Process slowed for not meeting LGC requirements

Published 11:04 am Friday, November 21, 2014

by Leah Justice

Polk County Commissioners invited the towns of Columbus and Tryon and City of Saluda to join in a proposed contract with Inman-Campobello Water District (ICWD) if any of the towns are interested.

Commissioners met Monday, Nov. 17 and also heard that the contract process has been slowed because the current contract draft does not meet N.C. Local Government Commission (LGC) guidelines.

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Interim Polk County Manager Marche Pittman said because of the nature of the current draft contract and the county potentially being indebted to ICWD if anyone pulls out of the contract, the LGC said it wouldn’t be approved. The LGC regulates local governments’ finances and must give its approval before governments can borrow money for projects. The problem with the current draft proposal is if Polk County ever terminated the contract, the county would owe ICWD for its infrastructure in Polk County, and exactly what would be owed cannot be determined at this time.

Pittman said he is still working on the contract in an attempt to meet LGC guidelines for approval.

During Monday’s meeting, commissioner Ray Gasperson placed a county-wide water/sewer plan on the agenda for discussion. Gasperson said he assumes commissioners will hold their regular retreat during the second meeting in January, saying Polk now has time to digest what has been happening with the contract, given recent feedback from the LGC.

Gasperson also mentioned a recent advertisement in the Bulletin that called for a county-wide water and sewer plan. Suggested groups to be invited to a joint meeting included in the advertisement were Polk residents, the towns of Columbus and Tryon and City of Saluda, a consultant with expertise in developing water plans, legal experts, qualified financial and engineering experts and representatives from Northbrook Hydroelectric, N.C. Fish and Wildlife, N.C. Soil and Water, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and ICWD.

Gasperson said the advertisement lays out a good approach to the process and it’s what he hopes to see, particularly involving the community and the towns in the process.

Commissioner Tom Pack said he doesn’t know where the idea the county is moving too fast on the contract comes from.

Pack said the contract is moving at a natural progression and there’s an idea out there (in the public) that the county hasn’t worked with the towns. Pack said the county has worked with the towns since 2004-2005 on a water authority.

“If it had worked with the towns we’d have a water authority,” Pack said.

Pack also said if the towns want to come to the table on the current water contract, “now is the time to do it.”

Commissioner Michael Gage motioned to instruct Pittman to talk with each town manager to see if the towns are interested in joining the contract. If any of them are interested, Gage said, the county and towns interested could hold a joint meeting with Walker sometime in December.

Commissioner chair Ted Owens said that was one of the plans from the very beginning, to eventually have a meeting with the towns.

Pack said the towns need to be advised of what the county is doing concerning water, but he doesn’t think the county needs to slow down the process.

Gasperson said he thinks the county should include all the elected officials, not just the town managers.

Gage said one the county finds out if there’s interest, the county and those interested will have a joint meeting, including all the boards.

Gasperson asked if it is all or nothing, asking if it will take all three towns to be interested to be included.

Gage answered no, saying one or all of the towns can decide they are interested in joining.

Commissioner Keith Holbert said none of the towns have to come on board at the beginning of the contract. Pack said the current draft has specific verbiage about the towns joining and that’s why that was put in there.

Owens said at some point he would like to see the towns informed of the contract, similar to how the county presented its economic development policy and strategy to each town and several other organizations to receive feedback prior to its approval.

Pack said he foresees once the county gets the water contract where commissioners are happy with it, the county will proceed as it did with the economic development policy and strategy by meeting with different boards to get their input.

“That’s going to be the process in my opinion,” said Pack.

The motion to ask the towns if they are interested passed unanimously, with Gasperson saying he was voting in favor but still thinks the county needs to have a bigger discussion regarding the contract with the community.

Tryon Town Council met Tuesday, Nov. 18 with Mayor Jim Wright adding the water contract to the agenda. Wright explained what county commissioners decided on Monday, saying the individual towns will have an option of joining with ICWD under the same terms as the county. Tryon commissioners did not give opinions during Tuesday’s meeting whether they are interested in joining the contract.

Polk County first began public discussions regarding joining water resources with ICWD on Sept. 18. Walker came to the county’s meeting and reviewed work done by he and Pittman on long-range planning and what ICWD would be willing to do for Polk County in an effort to save the county money. Polk and Walker had a work session on Sept. 22 where more details about the partnership were discussed. Walker told the county ICWD would agree to fund at least $100,000 worth of water lines in Polk per year, handle engineering and permitting for water lines, fund repairs to Turner Shoals Dam (estimated at $2-$3 million), fund a water plant for the county and long-range planning. ICWD has recently agreed to not construct a water plant in Polk County.

Once a contract was drafted in October, several residents began to express concern, in general because Polk County would not make any revenue but would owe ICWD for its investments in the county if the contract were ever terminated. Other concerns were raised over the contract stating that ICWD would have rights of eminent domain if necessary and both parties could sell the water wholesale with approval from the other. If ICWD wanted to sell water wholesale, a joint committee established (with three Polk County representatives and two ICWD representatives) would have to approve and if Polk wanted to sell water wholesale, the ICWD board would have to approve.
Other concerns are that the current contract states that if ICWD constructs a water plant prior to the termination or expiration of the agreement, the water resources, which include the Broad River line, the North Pacolet River, the Green River and Lake Adger, shall remain pooled for the joint use of the parties for a period of 50 years.

Commissioners have made some changes to the contract since its Oct. 27 workshop. The board of commissioners also directed attorney Berg on Nov. 3 to work with Pittman and ICWD to make more changes to the contract, including that a specific amount be allowed to be withdrawn from Lake Adger and that the contract specifically state that Columbus, Saluda and Tryon have priority over anyone else.

Commissioners directed Berg to return with another draft contract. Commissioners have also said public hearings will be held prior to the approval of the contract.