BEAUFORT — The Carteret County Board of Commissioners narrowly voted Monday evening to accept an offer from Carolina Water Service of North Carolina to purchase the county-owned water system for $9.5 million.
The board voted 4-3 to accept the offer, with commissioners Mark Mansfield, Robin Comer, Jimmy Farrington and Chairperson Ed Wheatly in favor and commissioners Chris Chadwick, Bob Cavanaugh and Chuck Shinn opposed. Mr. Comer made the motion, and Mr. Mansfield seconded it.
“From what I’ve heard tonight, I don’t want to keep kicking this down the road,” Mr. Comer said as he introduced his motion, which came after roughly an hour of discussion among the board members on the pros and cons of retaining the water system as a public utility or selling it to a private, for-profit entity.
The agenda for Monday night included an item labeled “Discussion regarding the county-owned water system,” but Mr. Mansfield suggested the board hadn’t necessarily set out to vote on the matter this month.
“I don’t think that was my intent of getting this on the agenda tonight, to have a vote, it was to get discussion out there, but I guess we’ve been backed into a corner,” he said. He did not specify why he felt the board was “backed into a corner.”
Earlier in the meeting, Mr. Chadwick made a motion for the county to keep the water system. Like Mr. Comer, he said he didn’t “see a need to keep kicking it down the road,” but he ended up in the minority position and his motion failed 4-3.
The board appeared evenly split in opinion on the water sale until Mr. Wheatly spoke up to declare, after “flip-flopping” on the issue several times over the past few months, that he was in favor of selling to a private company. He cast the deciding vote Monday.
“I’m not just a Beaufort commissioner, I’m a county commissioner, and I’ve got to look out for the best interests of this whole county, the entire county,” he said. “And if I’m forced to vote tonight, as I think we are going to be, I’m going to vote to sell the water system.”
A contract with Carolina Water has not been finalized, though county attorney Rob Wheatly and assistant manager Gene Foxworth said a draft contract has already been prepared. The deal must go through several more steps, including receiving approval from the N.C. Utilities Commission and undergoing a due diligence period, before it is finalized.
The board of commissioners previously decided at its meeting in June to table a decision on the offer from Carolina Water because a contract hadn’t been finalized at that point. They did the same thing in July upon learning the company had basically “reneged” on an initial agreement with the county to keep water rates the same for the first five years of the contract.
The matter did not come up in August, instead appearing on the agenda again Monday.
“We thought we were golden there for a couple months, then to find out we weren’t,” attorney Wheatly said.
Mr. Shinn said part of the reason he voted against accepting the offer was because of the outstanding contract issue.
“We’ve kicked this thing down the road for a couple months anyway until we saw the contract, well, I haven’t seen a contract, so if we have to vote right now I wouldn’t know what exactly I’m voting for,” he said. “I would be unable to vote in favor of selling it.”
The board also voted 7-0 Monday to lower rates for the county water district by 25%. At the same meeting in June that commissioners tabled a decision on the sale, they also raised water rates for the district by 95% in an effort to make the system more financially viable.
That was done because the system, which serves around 1,200 customers located mostly along the Highway 101 corridor north of Beaufort, had been essentially subsidized by a special 5.5-cent tax everyone in the district, not just those hooked up to the system, had to pay. That put the system at risk of being labeled by the state as “financially distressed.” That special tax rate was eliminated in June.
Carol Traxler, who lives off Highway 101 in Beaufort and is a county water customer, said during the public comment portion of the meeting her water bill had risen significantly since the increase took effect.
“My water bill now is $80 a month and I’ve tried to do everything to cut down on it,” she said “There’s no way, I don’t know how many people that can afford that who lives in Carteret County.”
Commissioners said they’d received numerous calls and emails from others complaining about the rate increase, as well, which factored into the move to lower rates and, ultimately, their decision to sell as some felt a private company could offer lower rates due to scale.
Several of the commissioners who voted against accepting the offer said they felt the county could still explore other options for making the system viable, such as by requiring new construction in the water district to hook up to the system. The commissioners generally agreed it was an oversight not to require hookup when the system was established around 21 years ago, saying many opted instead to use private wells.
Following the decision to accept Carolina Water’s offer, the board passed a motion 7-0 adopting a resolution that would allow the county to pursue potential grant funds to help pay for the water system should the deal “fall through.”
A small contingent of residents from the grassroots group Carteret County for Public Water, which has been outspoken in its opposition to the sale, showed up to the commissioners meeting Monday evening. Steve Bolding was the only one to speak during public comment, urging commissioners to keep the water system a county-owned asset.
“I just wanted to come before you tonight to (say), in case you guys forgot, we still oppose the sale of the water system,” he said. “Myself and my fellow town citizens, around 1,000 have signed our petition and we remain committed to that opposition of the asset sale.”
Patrick Kelly, another key organizer for CC4PW, said following the vote Monday night he was surprised and disappointed by the decision.
“I am in total disagreement with it,” he said, pointing out some commissioners had gone back on previous statements about not agreeing to sell before a contract was finalized.
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Bolding said they see their only recourse now being reelection campaigns to vote out those commissioners who voted to sell the system.
Reporter's note: This article was last updated at 2:01 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.