Frustrated with the continued discussion and debate about the possible sale of the county’s only water system that serves approximately 1,200 customers, mostly residential, along Highway 101 in the Core Creek area, the Carteret County Board of Commissioners made a surprising and precipitous decision that deserves fuller disclosure. This is just another example of the complexities and emotional decisions that county and municipal officials face in a county that is experiencing significant growth pressures without a long range plan that results in crisis management.
The future of the county’s water system first became an issue in February when two “unsolicited offers” were made to purchase the system. The county has been quietly contemplating the sale of the system because it has never been self-supporting, requiring additional supporting revenue in the form of a special district tax. Further, it is an anomaly in the county’s operation since it serves only a small portion of the county.
The county offered to sell the system to the town of Beaufort but there was no interest because it was well outside of its current jurisdiction and has not been self-supporting from water billing alone.
In a surprise announcement in a February board meeting, commissioners accepted the high bid of $4.9 million from Aqua N.C. over a second bid offered by Carolina Water Systems. This initiated the process for upset bids that ended May 12.
In the February meeting Assistant County Manager Gene Foxworth noted that the final decision to conclude the sale transaction would take nine to twelve months. “There’s a lot of approval from the (N.C.) Utilities Commission and other due diligence that has to take place in this process,” he explained.
Since that initial decision, residents on the water system created an organization, Carteret County for Public Water, (CCPW) to fight the transfer. Over that same period of time the bidding has raised the price, with Carolina Water Systems getting the final nod by the commissioners last week for $9.5 million. This offer is below the $12.1 million value established by an engineering consulting firm hired by the county at the outset of the process.
Since that initial announcement the commissioners have supposedly received information to help them make a final decision. But that information has not been shared with the public and apparently is not complete in the opinion of the board members who lost in last Monday evening’s vote.
The decision was tabled in June and July as the board awaited the details of the purchase contract. One item in the negotiation that gave board members concern was an apparent dismissal of an understanding that the new owner, Carolina Water Service, would continue the current water rates for five years after the purchase.
The issue was not considered in August but was scheduled for discussion in Monday’s meeting. According to Commissioner Mark Mansfield the board had not anticipated a called vote. In fact, county attorney Rob Wheatly, older brother of Commission Chairman Ed Wheatly, was surprised by the vote. “We thought we were golden there for a couple months, then to find out we weren’t.”
He, along with the assistant county manager, advised the board that the purchase contract details are still undecided but the board has shown its determination to decide the issue regardless.
What is problematic is the absence of public information, not only about the details of the purchase, but a full explanation of why the system is not financially viable. If under the current operation it is economically unsound then the current water customers need to know what it will take to make it so. Further, they deserve to know what will be the structure and process any new owner-operator will be using to assure the sustainability of a quality water system.
Commissioner Chris Chadwick, who made a motion to keep the system as a county facility, and Commissioner Comer, who followed up with a motion to bring the issue to a final vote, each complained that this has been too long in the decision process. It has, but that is the fault of the commissioners for having jumped into the bidding process without a plan.
Commissioner Wheatly, representing the Beaufort district, noted in his vote to sell that, “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…” That is correct; he should.
The best way the commissioners can look out for the county’s best interests is to do a better job of accessing the services currently provided and determine what services will be needed in the future based on a long range plan, something that has not been presented or for that matter, even discussed.
Now residents along the Highway 101 corridor utilizing the county’s water system are left with lots of unknowns that can adversely affect their homes and financial wellbeing. In addition, questions remain as to what happens if the purchase contract is not acceptable, since it has yet to be reviewed by the commissioners or county staff.
Commissioners and the public stand to be backed into more corners requiring very unpopular decisions in the future. The only way to assure that these decisions will not suffer slow and emotionally charged conclusions is if the county and all municipalities begin to plan more aggressively. Otherwise the county’s various policy makers will be “backed into a corner” resulting in crisis management which is antithetical to good planning.