By Jesse Wood
April 2, 2013. The main topic of discussion at last week’s special meeting between the Town of Boone’s Water Use Committee, which features among its members the Boone Town Council, was anticipated state legislation in Raleigh that could derail the town’s proposed raw water intake system along the New River.
Regarding a slew of introduced bills in the N.C. General Assembly, Pam Williamson led the discussion that covered a wide range of topics from the state takeover of municipal utilities, including water systems, to the elimination of extra-territorial jurisdictions, all of which some members of the committee felt had the chance to somewhat impact the proposed intake system.
She noted bills such as the one regarding the takeover of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport by a regional authority, consisting of legislative leaders, representatives of surrounding counties and the governor, and another bill involving a similar takeover of the water system in Asheville.
“I want to talk about what this means about the water intake,” Williamson said, “that we told people, we asked them to vote on that and they would pay for it out of their money, and now if they pay for it they have a better-than-even chance of having it taken away from them – not just the intake system itself, but any available income from it or any possibility of managing it.”
So many bills are being introduced so quickly – or has Williamson put it last week, “They are coming down like the snow has.” – that the committee unanimously decided to meet again in May to see where the bills stand and how the committee should move forward. Council Member Andy Ball noted that the crossover deadline for bills to move either to or from the House and Senate is May 16, so the committee would have a good idea what bills are advancing or dieing in the General Assembly.
Williamson mentioned another bill regarding the elimination of ETJs, which could be a referendum up for a vote during the 2014 election. If ETJs were to be eliminated, Williamson questioned if the intake system would be needed.
“Another idea would put this issue [of the continuation of the water intake system] on ballot coming up – I am not suggesting it because I don’t know if its feasible – and ask people do you want to continue with it knowing the system may revert to state control,” Williamson said. “That’s just another idea. I just think the people ought to have a say in this. They did in the first part of the process. Things have changed now. We owe it to the people who are citizens of Boone to at least know what’s going on and that whatever we recommend to the council has some grounding. Are we even going to need a water system? If we don’t have bigger boundaries, are we even going to need it.”
In 2008, town voters approved a $25-million bond referendum for a new intake system, garnering 73 percent support for the project. And two years later, the Boone Town Council accepted a $20.5-million loan from the USDA to finance the project.
So far, Town Manager Greg Young said the town has spent “well over” a million dollars on the intake system through consulting and engineering fees and other planning costs.
“We’ve spent well over a million dollars, probably well more than that,” Young said.
Williamson even mentioned, “whether we should can the whole project or just plow right ahead without worrying about what’s happening tomorrow.”
“My mom … always said it’s a real bummer if you spend money at something that didn’t work, but the thing that is even worse throwing good money after it,” Williamson said.
She asked the following questions for town staff to answer by the next meeting that she said would help in the discussions.
- If we can’t expand our boundaries any more and can’t go into the ETJ with water, how much capacity that we are building on the intake are we going to need in the town of Boone?
- How much land actually remains in the town that currently needs water?
- How much of this water are we going to sell and who are we going to sell it to?
- Should the taxpayer’s money be directed towards other needs and services in the town, such as policing – in light of a potential $3 million combined windfall from Senate Bill 394 and the possible redistribution of sales tax in Watauga County?
Also during the meeting Public Utilities Director Rick Miller discussed usage numbers.
He said predicted usage numbers were based on population trends and originate from a study from 2004 that estimate 33,336 water-system users in 2030. He said those calculations include people in Boone, Blowing Rock, the ETJ and county people who work in the town and therefore use the town’s water.
Miller added water needs must be figured on a maximum daily basis because unexpected events such as a fire or leaks may occur.
When asked about dates on the project moving forward, Miller said he has already twice told the council and water committee members that this project would be done by now, so he declined to another prediction date.
He added, though, that there has been “a lot more hurdles than you could ever dream of for on a project like this.”
Another item on the meeting’s agenda was the status of permits for the intake system, which was recently halted by federal authorities because Ashe County officials declined to sign off on a required flood-mapping document concerning the project to the Federal Emergency Management Authority. Boone officials didn’t notify Ashe County that it was financing an access road to the intake facility, which is located in Watauga County but passes through Ashe County.
The discussion of the permit status was very quick. Miller said that 50 percent of the permits required, some of which relate to right-of-way acquisitions, had been acquired. When asked about an estimate on the other 50 percent, Town Manager Greg Young said, “We can’t disclose that?”
That was the end of that agenda item.
During the meeting, Frank Packard, who lives in Todd near the New River, sat among several folks in the audience. He was seen shaking his head numerous times, especially during parts of the discussion when water-usage calculations were described.
He has been a vocal opponent of the size of this project since its inception and has thoroughly studied water usage numbers. He recently spoke before the Watauga County Board of Commissioners, giving his opinion on how much water the Town of Boone will need in the future.
After Packard gave his presentation in February, Commissioner Blust said, “I feel like Boone has misled a lot of people with their water situation … Figures can lie and liars can figure. When you are not giving all the stats, all the information, that really bothers me.”
But aside from talk about the figures, he wondered – in an email sent to the press, Town of Boone staff, and state legislators – why there was no further open discussion about the status of permits and recent FEMA decision.
“Is this part of the ‘hurdles’ that Mr. Miller briefly referenced in his response to a question about when the project might be moving forward. It is certainly a question that in my opinion the WUC should be concerned with and could be discussed without giving away any priviledged information if there was a true concern for public discussion, openness and transparency,” Packard wrote.
“No one also seemed to be at all interested in asking any important questions publicly about where the project stood in regards to the FEMA decision to cancel the permit for flood mapping changes. Is that not a key factor the WUC should have been interested in and asking questions about? Certainly nothing priviledged there. Let’s get the facts out about what is really going on.”