BEAUFORT — For the second time, the Carteret County Board of Commissioners has chosen to delay a decision on whether to sell the county-owned water system to a private company until more details about the deal can be worked out.
During a meeting that took place Monday evening in Beaufort, the board voted 6-1 to table a decision on the sale for at least another month, with Commissioner Bob Cavanaugh the sole dissenting vote. The county has an offer from Carolina Water Service of North Carolina to purchase the publicly owned and maintained water system for $9.5 million.
That system serves about 1,200 customers concentrated along the Highway 101 corridor outside Beaufort, including areas of Mill Creek and North River. As they’ve done for the past several months, some of those customers and their supporters packed the commissioners’ boardroom and an overflow room at the county administration complex Monday to urge commissioners not to sell the system.
“It’s been six months, this is my sixth meeting I’m coming in front of you now. We’ve had a group of people that (said) we don’t want our water sold, we’ve not had one person stand up and say sell the water,” Shell Landing resident Clark Patton said during a general public comment portion of the meeting. “Not one constituent of yours has stood up here and said sell our water.”
Commissioners tabled a decision on the sale last month, as well, saying they wished to wait until a contract with Carolina Water could be finalized to contain certain terms, namely that rates be locked in for the first five years of the contract. At the time, county attorney Rob Wheatly said the final contract was in the process of being negotiated and would likely be ready in a few days.
However, Mr. Wheatly informed the board Monday Carolina Water had essentially “reneged” on its initial agreement not to raise rates for five years because the company had “miscalculated.”
“We pretty much agreed with everything until we got down to them holding the rates for five years, and that’s been the big sticking point,” he said Monday. “I thought we had a deal…last month and then later they said they had made some mistakes.”
Commissioner Mark Mansfield made the motion to table Monday, saying he felt any decision would be premature without the details of a contract more firmly laid out.
“I still think we’re in the same place we were last month,” he said. “Right now, we have been in negotiations with Carolina Water on whether we’re going to sell the system or not sell the system, and I’m not so sure they’re negotiating in good faith.”
Commissioner Chuck Shinn said the news Carolina Water had backed out of the agreement to not raise rates for five years was “new to him,” and for that reason, he also supported tabling the matter.
“I would have a hard time with agreeing to sell it right now because I’ve still got questions in my mind,” he said.
Last month after deciding to delay a verdict on the sale, commissioners voted to eliminate a special 5.5-cent water tax and to raise rates by 95% across the board, effective July 1. According to county staff, the 21-year-old water system operates at an annual loss and was essentially being subsidized by the special water tax district, which includes some residents who aren’t hooked up to the system but still paid for its operation.
County manager Tommy Burns shared in April the state is considering labeling the county’s water system as financially distressed due to it having to rely on the special tax to operate. He suggested commissioners eliminate the tax and raise the rates to avoid that fate.
Mr. Wheatly said Monday customers may actually get a cheaper rate under Carolina Water considering the 95% increase and he urged the board take that into account when making its decision.
“(Carolina Water) would probably still be cheaper for their water than it would be having to pay our increased rates going up 95 percent, I think that’s something you need to look at analyze,” he said as commissioners weighed whether to table or consider
At least one commissioner, Chris Chadwick, supports retaining the water system for at least a couple more years to give the county and the water customers time to explore other options for making the system financially viable.
“I am in favor of keeping the system and allowing the people a couple years to come up with some grants or maybe form a co-op and then sell it to them, sell it to the people,” he said. “If the contract is falling apart and we don’t have the information, there’s no need to keep bringing it up every month until we have all the information.”
The board may revisit the offer and make a decision on whether to sell or retain the water system during its next regular meeting in August.
Reporter's note: This article was updated with a full report at 11:24 a.m. Tuesday, July 20, 2021.
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.