One of three board members overseeing the Whittier Sanitary District resigned this month, saying he could not “in good faith” continue to serve with a group not in compliance with state law.
“In addition, refusing to file the necessary Internal Revenue Service forms to declare wages and benefits taken from the citizens of Whittier is wrong,” John Boaze, the board member, wrote in his resignation letter.
Boaze has persistently carried on a one-man crusade to force the Whittier Sanitary District board to adhere to the same rules governing other public boards, which he says they’ve openly flouted. Open meetings, audits, public records — rules like that.
To date, those with authority to intervene haven’t seemed to be listening.
That situation, however, might have shifted, at least marginally, in the wake of Boaze’s resignation.
The N.C. Department of the Treasurer, in an earlier response to Boaze’s complaints, sent the Whittier Sanitary District a strongly worded letter advising it to comply with state accounting practices. Last week, the Treasurer’s Department confirmed it’s monitoring the situation.
“If it is determined that the district is not consistently making an effort to follow sound accounting practices or general statutes, division staff do have authority to control the financial operations of the district,” said Heather Strickland, deputy director of communications.
Jackson Manager Ken Westmoreland said he had consulted with Kevin King, his counterpart in Swain County, to see what — if anything — needed to take place.
“The Whittier Water and Sewer District is an independent legal entity and if organizational change is to come about, it will have to be from state pressure in some form,” Westmoreland said.
Boaze likely encountered entrenched bureaucratic hesitancy for this reason: it’s all so danged confusing, and very few Whittier residents actually rely on the system — particularly when compared to the inordinately large number of governmental entities playing starring roles in the small, unincorporated community’s serial water-and-sewer drama.
Once someone pulls the first thread on this ball of twine, no telling what might come unwound.
The Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t oversee sewer needs in the Whittier community – the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which operates in Jackson County, controls that service for Whittier.
The Whittier community encompasses land in both Jackson and Swain counties, meaning county commission boards in both have a hand in the district.
Though the Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day duties of handling the community’s sewer needs, the district does have responsibility for drumming-up customers for a new wastewater treatment plant, built to the tune of about $5 million. The board, to date, has failed to attract customers. The plant, which has the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day, currently serves 12 customers.
TWASA, forced kicking and screaming a few years ago to take control of the wastewater treatment plant, isn’t happy. When extra money being chipped in by Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians dries up, it appears the plant will be a massive drain on TWASA. Something akin to a fiscal sewer, as it were.
Jackson County is on its final year of a three-year agreement to provide $100,000 annually to TWASA. This $300,000 is on top of an initial $750,000 investment.
TWASA has encountered difficulty wresting the same amount in promised dollars out of the tribe, which has cited a different budget cycle than everyone else, among other reasons for the missing contributions. The check has been in the mail for about two years, with the first $100,000 payment promised to arrive any day. The tribe, like Jackson County, already paid about $750,000 to help build the plant.
Additionally, the Church of God added $500,000. Located near Whittier, the Church of God sports its own mini-version of the Methodist’s Lake Junaluska Assembly in Haywood County.
TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline says his board will decide at the beginning of the coming year whether to keep on keeping on when it comes to the wastewater plant. It might well decide, No thanks. In that case, who will operate it?
Back to the Whittier Sanitary District board, and the reason it exists. The district’s board is tasked with overseeing the water system serving the Whittier community. There are about 100 customers relying on that system.
But, of course, it isn’t that simple. The Whittier Sanitary District board doesn’t actually maintain or operate the water system, either — that’s done by the Eastern Band, which has tracts of tribal land in and about the Whittier community. No one knows how much longer Eastern Band leaders will want to continue this task, which aids not only its neighbors but also those tribal members who live in the area.
Add one more item: Cline is on record saying TWASA does not want Whittier’s water system. The wastewater treatment plant is providing enough headaches, thank you very much.
Back about a decade ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor.
Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the river.
The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away.
Ten years and some $5 million later, a wastewater treatment plant now serves all those needy entities.
Blame the economy, the parties involved certainly do; but the bottom line?
• Assessments about growth turned out to be wrong, at least to date. There are just 14 customers being served by a plant with annual operating costs of roughly $180,000 a year. The plant is capable of treating 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day — and the treatment facility was built with future expansion in mind.
• Jackson County residents continue to kick in $100,000 a year to subsidize the system. The county agreed to help pay for the system for three years, and has one more year to go.
• The Eastern Band also made the same deal, but the tribe — citing an unfinalized budget, and a different fiscal-year budget than other local governments, among other reasons — hasn’t yet made a payment. It is now $200,000 behind on its $300,000 pledge. The first $100,000 of the tribe’s commitment is in their current 2010-11 budget, which began Oct. 1. A payment is expected soon, Vice Chief Larry Blythe has assured parties involved.
• The Whittier Sanitary District, a three-member board that continues to oversee water for the community and is tasked with getting more customers for the wastewater treatment plant, instead hasn’t even met basic requirements the state sets for governing boards.
A letter last month to the district from the Department of State Treasurer complained that no budget has been adopted, the district operated at a net loss with actual expenses exceeding budgeted amount, board members were reportedly receiving utility services free of charge, an audit hadn’t been done as required, and the financial officer wasn’t bonded as the law stipulated. The district has since cut out the perks for board members but is still working at coming into compliance on the other matters.
All of this has created a hardship for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which became the reluctant manager of Whittier’s sewer system. TWASA was formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, with the idea that one large entity would do a better job than the county and towns (there are four in Jackson) working alone could.
“It’s at the point we will have to decide whether to keep operating the plant, or turn it over to the Whittier Sanitary District,” said Joe Cline, executive director of TWASA.
That decision, he said, will be made around the beginning of the new year.
When the subsidies from the county and tribe dry up, the 14 current customers won’t be enough to cover the system’s costs.
Bill Gibson, executive director of the Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties, is a dealmaker. And he was the man who helped put together the money needed to make the wastewater treatment plant a reality.
This was a complicated project, one of the most intricate deals Gibson has been involved in since taking the lead role for the commission in 1976. There were numerous private and public parties involved. Millions of dollars were needed.
Land, owned by the Jackson County Economic Development Commission, was available in an industrial park in Whittier. And in 2001, the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center agreed to give the project a $3 million grant.
Getting the necessary permits to build took two years. Among the delays — an archaeological site and the need to tunnel pipe under the Tuckasegee River.
During this time, prices on building supplies went up. The grant wasn’t large enough to cover the bids coming in. More money was sought and received from Jackson County, the Eastern Band and the Church of God. Total, Jackson and the Eastern Band invested about $750,000 each into the project. The Church of God, about $500,000. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center added $200,000 more to its original grant amount, Gibson said.
For Jackson County’s part, Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said, the elementary school’s failing septic system presented a problem that had to be solved. Gibson estimated it would have taken more than a $1 million for the county to buy land and put in a new septic field and sewer system.
“Even with a new septic field, you are buying time, but it would eventually fail, too,” he said.
Though additional money was made available, some things had to be cut to make the sewage treatment plant a go.
“Some of the reason we don’t have the customers we thought is that we had to cut out some lines,” Gibson said.
The initial estimates were for 40 customers to tap in. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so, Gibson said, had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in their own septic systems.
Westmoreland recently noted the Whittier Sanitary District hasn’t been very aggressive in recruiting new customers.
There are a lot of ‘ifs’ before the building of a wastewater treatment plant in Whittier can be deemed a failure or success. If the economy rebounds, if investors see a reason to build on U.S. 441, if residents in Whittier tap in to the system, the plant will serve the purpose intended. Everything is in place for that to happen — in addition to sewer lines, there is also water, natural gas and high-speed fiber optic.
But 14 customers? That won’t turn the system into what was envisioned: self sustainable and justifiable.
A Sylva sewer line that overflowed on a residential property last month has sparked a difference of opinion between the sewer authority and the town that may have larger implications for Jackson County.
According to Sylva officials, the owner of a Thomas Street property called the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority –– which operates water and sewer utilities for Sylva, Dillsboro, and Jackson County –– when a town line backed up and spilled raw sewage into his house. The owners were told that TWASA needed a letter from the town of Sylva stipulating the clogged line was part of its system before they could respond to the problem.
When the town furnished the letter, TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline responded with another letter, saying the authority’s policies don’t authorize fixing or maintaining sewer lines that aren’t on its sewer system maps.
The Sylva resident’s problem got fixed right away, but not by TWASA. Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said he considered the overflow a health risk and directed town employees to clean up the mess and send an invoice to TWASA.
But the dispute gets at the heart of TWASA’s relationship with the municipalities it serves. The authority was formed in 1992 as a private enterprise that would take over the management of water and sewer over from Jackson County and its municipalities.
TWASA’s refusal to respond to a problem on a four-inch lateral line that did not appear on its system maps may indicate that the authority will show resistance in the future to maintaining antiquated and undocumented segments of its system. Moody acknowledged that some portions of the town’s system are nearly 70 years old and not all of the lateral lines appear on system maps, but he rejected the conclusion that those facts exempt TWASA from maintaining them.
“From my perspective, when TWASA was formed in 1992, they accepted the entire sewer system in existence at the time,” Moody said. “Therefore, I feel they have the responsibility to maintain it.”
The sewer line clog on Thomas Street was a relatively easy fix. The town got Roto-Rooter to pump it clear for $350, but Moody felt strongly that TWASA’s refusal to respond set a dangerous precedent for the municipalities in its system.
“The amount of money was insignificant, but we have invoiced TWASA for that because it’s a matter of responsibility,” Moody said. “TWASA was formed to get the county and the municipalities out of the sewer business.”
Cline said he was merely following through with the authority’s policy not to spend money on sewer lines they regard as “private.”
“If it wasn’t a line recognized as part of the system at the time of the handover, then it was considered a private line,” Cline said.
Cline said he has not refused to pay for the cleanup of the overflow, but he wants to wait for the TWASA board to appoint a special committee to determine who is responsible.
“I’ve not refused to pay it at this point,” Cline said. “I want to see what the committee has worked out before I submit payment or not.”
Last week, Moody attended a TWASA board meeting to make his case that the authority was responsible for the maintenance of all of the town’s sewer lines as a result of its charter agreement. In response to his arguments, TWASA board chairman Randall Turpin said the board would appoint a committee to look into the matter and determine who is responsible for maintaining the lines. The committee will consist of two representatives from each municipality, two from the county, and two from the TWASA board.
“I just felt like we needed to bring all the entities together to discuss what they believed the intent of the original agreement was,” Turpin said.
Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, who was TWASA’s planner when the authority was first formed, said resolving the issue might not be as simple as reading the transfer agreement inked in 1992.
“I think the language is pretty clear,” Massie said. “The problem is what the implications are. Apart from an initial cash contribution from Sylva, nobody has given TWASA any money to fix the problems they gave to TWASA when it was formed.”
Turpin said one of the main problems facing the authority is how to deal with “orphan” lines, like the one that overflowed in Sylva. The transfer agreement clearly states that TWASA is responsible for the entire water and sewer systems in the municipalities, but it also gives the authority broad discretion to determine how and when to maintain and improve its lines in conjunction with its capital improvement plan.
Turpin said he wants the committee members to come to the table representing the vested interests of the communities that elected them, so they can hash out a plan to move forward.
“Is there a way they can help identify projects that require expenditures, and then can we talk about where those funds will come from?” Turpin said.
Turpin’s plan to form a committee to examine TWASA’s charter agreement may not work. On Monday, the Jackson County board refused to appoint any members to the committee. Both Massie and Commissioner Joe Cowan said they wanted to know why TWASA’s board, which already includes representatives from the municipalities and the county, can’t resolve the issue on its own. Turpin said TWASA needs help from municipalities to determine what parts of the system should be prioritized in the capital improvement plan, because it cannot undertake a wholesale update of the system it inherited without raising rates unreasonably.
“TWASA’s primary revenue source comes from the rate payers, and the question is how much can the rate payers afford to pay to update an antiquated system?” Turpin said.
In the meantime, Cline said he would wait to pay Sylva back the $350 it paid to unclog the Thomas Street sewer.
Swain County commissioners have settled a ten-month long lawsuit with Buckeye Construction for $30,000, far less than the $127,000 originally demanded.
“I think the county came out a winner on this, even though it cost us,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones.
McGill Associates, an Asheville-based engineering firm that designed the construction project in question, will pick up $15,000 of the cost, while the county will cover the remaining $15,000.
The lawsuit centered around a sewer project in the Franklin Grove community. When Buckeye encountered more water underground than expected, the company decided to widen the ditches and add more stone and gravel to better support the pipes.
While the change added significant cost to the project, Buckeye did not first get a change order to formalize the cost overruns. Buckeye sued the county in February, after Swain refused to pay the additional costs.
Swain County filed a motion to dismiss the case based on jurisdiction but that motion was dismissed. The county immediately appealed the decision in June. Recently, Swain recently received a settlement offer from Buckeye. During a closed session at a county meeting Monday, Swain commissioners agreed to settle the case.
Buckeye began work on the Franklin Grove sewer project in August 2007. Plans for the project called for a minimum amount of stone to be used around the pipes.
“That part was done to specification,” said Danny Bridges, principal for McGill’s Asheville office.
But McGill never came to an agreement with Buckeye over the actual quantity of stone that was used in the project, according to Bridges. Bridges said the contractor had multiple options for dealing with the situation and chose to put stone in the trench prior to giving a price.
Macon County commissioners voiced concern this week over a proposed sewer treatment plant that would discharge into the Little Tennessee River just across the state line in Georgia.
The river, considered an environmental treasure and a future source of drinking water, flows north through Franklin and on to Lake Fontana
“As the county adjacent to and directly downstream from the proposed Rabun County facility we have significant concerns about the impact of this project on the water quality in the Little Tennessee watershed on both sides of the state border,” Macon wrote in a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division states.
Rabun County, Ga., needs a discharge permit to convert the closed-down Fruit of the Loom plant into a sewer treatment plant. While a written public comment period was held on the permit, Macon commissioners called for a formal public hearing in their letter.
The letter also states that the river is listed as polluted in Georgia and North Carolina and potential further degradation must be approached carefully.
The town of Franklin also has plans in the works to use the river as an alternative source of drinking water, the letter states.
“There are many questions we would like the opportunity to discuss,” the letter states.
The application process for a permit provides holding a public hearing if there is sufficient public interest. Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who brought the issue forward, said he believes there is enough public interest to warrant a public hearing.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been leading a public campaign over the past month encouraging the public to send comments on the permit. The environmental group previously spoke at a commissioners meeting about the issue.
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Developers in Swain County eyeing a quick, easy connection to Bryson City’s sewer system for their newly built properties are out of luck — at least for now. Bryson’s town board is currently denying sewer services to anyone that lives outside of the immediate town limits.
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
Franklin town leaders are in the process of fixing some of the sewage spills throughout town, Franklin Town Manager Mike Decker said.
A long-standing controversy over extending water and sewer lines to the semi-rural community of Bethel could be a defining issue in the election for the Haywood County Soil and Water Conservation District board this November.
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
The state’s water, wastewater and stormwater systems are faced with $6.8 billion in capital improvement needs, a figure that is expected to reach $16.5 billion by 2030, according to a new study released by the North Carolina Rural Center.