Polk commissioner majority says they don’t need expert

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, July 23, 2015

The majority of Polk County Commissioners said this week they are comfortable with a draft contract between the county and Inman-Campobello Water District (ICWD) and do no need to hire an expert.

Polk residents have been urging the county to hire an expert for its draft 75-year agreement with ICWD to share water resources and for ICWD to operate the county’s water system. Comments from commissioners regarding not needing an expert came amidst county attorney Jana Berg saying she is not an expert on long-term utility contracts but could advise the board on legalities of the contract and county manager Marche Pittman indicating he would be fine with the county hiring an expert advisor.

Commissioners met Monday, July 20 and held a work session on the contract following a regular meeting.

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Commissioner chair Tom Pack started the work session by saying the county has heard from a lot of citizens through meetings, emails and passing on the street and asked the board if they want to incorporate any of the ideas into the contract.

Commissioner Ray Gasperson said the obvious is the overwhelming number of citizens who have repeatedly asked, why 75 years.

“That totally stops it for me in a big way,” said Gasperson.

Gasperson also said the county has received overwhelming support for Polk to get a consultant to guide the county on the contract.

“I think we’re at that point we need to make a search for an independent consultant to figure out where we’re headed, because frankly, we don’t know,” Gasperson said.

Pack asked for the board’s thoughts on the 75-year term.

Commissioner vice chair Keith Holbert said he’d be willing to consider something less but people need to grasp that ICWD won’t need water from Lake Adger for probably 50 years.

Commissioner Michael Gage said he doesn’t have a problem with the 75 years as long as other things the county is asking for are still intact.

Pack then asked about the need to hire a consultant.

Holbert said he pretty well understands the agreement and with the county attorney’s guidance, “I don’t necessarily feel like we need to go outside.”

Gage said he is comfortable with the contract.

Commissioner Shane Bradley said he is also good with the contract.

“I understand exactly what’s in the contract,” said Bradley.

Attorney Berg in answering residents’ emails said she agrees with one person who said the contract is complex and is for a very long term. When it comes to placing a value on the resources, Berg said, she is not qualified to say.

“There are lawyers who specialize in utilities,” Berg said.

She said she has never dealt with a contract this complex for utilities and this involves a water reservoir and water rights.

“I’m not an expert,” said Berg.

Pack said this is a buy, sell, trade agreement and he is familiar with doing these through his work. He said what the county is looking to Berg for is to advise if the contract is legal and does the county have any downfalls.

“I can do that,” Berg said. “I can tell you if what you are proposing is legal.”

Gasperson said during an earlier meeting he brought up the question about expertise and other commissioners made the analog that commissioners aren’t financial experts but they prepare an annual budget.

Gasperson said if the county could structure the water contract like they do budget and could make amendments, with the contract coming up for renewal every year with trained staff to advise the county, it would be different. He said if the county gets out of line with the budget, the N.C. Local Government Commission (LGC) will come in and literally take over the budget, which nearly happened 15-16 years ago.

“We don’t have that backup here,” said Gasperson. “No one is going to come in and say we’re going to take over.”

He said he is really concerned the county is turning a blind eye to experts.

“How could we possibly for a moment think we have the expertise,” Gasperson asked, saying the county seeks expertise on most everything else they do.

The board then decided to incorporate other amendments to the contract, including defining exactly how many millions of gallons per day of water ICWD is allowed to take and how many is reserved for Polk County and what resources Polk is entitled.

Gasperson then asked manager Pittman if he thinks the county should bring in an expert.

Pittman said he personally wouldn’t have a problem with having an outsider look at the contract, but he is not on the board of commissioners.

“I think there’s plenty of resources in North Carolina if we chose to reach out,” said Pittman. “We could find somebody really easily.”

Pack ended the work session by asking Berg to send the latest contract draft out to commissioners and after the county’s next meeting (on Aug. 10), the county can send the draft back to ICWD to see what they think of the changes.

During citizen comments of the regular meeting, commissioners heard from five residents who expressed concern over the current contract draft.

Dennis Lanahan said he was there to petition commissioners to hire an expert on water utilities.

“This is a transaction that is worth tens of millions of dollars over the next 75 years,” Lanahan said. “No one knows what this transaction is worth.”

Baiba Bourbeau said she fails to understand why the county is rushing to ram through a 75-year contract, saying the county currently has seven years remaining on its current contract with ICWD. She spoke of the board’s effort to flaunt its power of arrogance and said with the opening of the Tryon International Equestrian Center, “make no mistake,” this area will grow exponentially. Bourbeau also said the opposition to the contract from residents is bipartisan so the only explanation to her is that “somebody’s wheels are being greased.”

Former county commissioner Tommy Melton said in 2008 when he was chair of the board the five commissioners sat down and decided to buy Lake Adger for $1.6 million. He said it was decided then that the county would budget and set aside $200,000 per year to fund dam repairs.

“The next year the board reduced that to $100,000,” said Melton. “As I understand it now we’re budgeting $50,000 for maintenance to the dam. If we had left it at $200,000, we would have had over $1 million.”

Melton also said, “this decision is too big for you to make.”

He added that the county has seven year remaining on its current agreement with ICWD and asked why the board is rushing to get this done.

“There could be no good reasons for you to push this through,” said Melton. “Bring in an expert.”

He also urged the county to sit down with the towns to get their opinions.

“Please consider the citizens,” said Melton. “Protect our water.”

Sky Conard said she is feeling very uncomfortable with information she received from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), who is not aware of any proposed repair schedule for the Turner Shoals Dam at Lake Adger, crafted by county engineer Dave Odom for the Aug. 4, 2014 meeting.

“Polk County never shared with them,” said Conard. “I am distressed that NCDENR/Dam Safety Division, which has public safety oversight of this 90-year old, high hazard-end of service life-dam, does not have Polk County’s costs and timeline plan in response to the sobering conclusions and recommendations found in this State required (AECOM special inspection) report of 2014…much less the county’s compliance with it.”

In response to DENR’s questions about Polk’s good will and intentions in trying to fulfill their obligations as responsible dam owners, Conard said she responded, “Is it good will trying to hand over this responsibility to ICWD; is it good will/intention defunding the dam reserve fund from $200,000 (a year) down to $50,000? Is it good will for the county to cry poor for dam safety repairs and then spend $7.5 million of taxpayer money on constituents’ water trunk lines; Is it good will to not send the state the proposed repair schedule and then not follow it themselves?”

Conard said so really she wishes the majority of commissioners would start feeling uncomfortable and disturbed along with her, “with all this non-disclosing, non-transparent, non-ownership, rejection of appropriate oversight,” and do what’s “best for citizens’ water supply infrastructure, welfare and safety for a change.”

See the county’s proposed resolution regarding the water contract beginning on page 23 of today’s edition. To see the full contract draft, visit the county’s website at www.polknc.org. The draft contract can be found through a link on the county’s homepage.