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Wildlife lovers can help conserve North Carolina’s nongame and rare wildlife species — and their habitats — by making a donation on line No. 30 of the N.C. income tax form.

Nearly a century old, the aging Cullowhee Dam is at a crossroads — with risk of failure increasing, Western Carolina University must decide whether to renovate the existing structure or remove it completely.

The dam hasn’t been used for power generation since the 1960s, but it creates a reservoir of still water that supplies WCU and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. However, some would like to see the dam disappear, offering increased opportunity for paddlers and allowing fish and other aquatic life to travel freely through a more natural, higher-quality river.

Customers of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority will see their rates increase if the 2017-18 budget is adopted as proposed Monday, June 26.

An unusual number of building vacancies has peppered downtown Sylva this winter, and as town leaders have scratched their heads to figure out why, the fee structure of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority has come under fire as a possible culprit. And that’s led to a larger discussion about whether that fee structure is inhibiting the area’s overall economic development. 

Joe Ward’s term on the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority board came to an abrupt end last week when newly elected commissioner Mickey Luker made a motion to remove him during the Jackson County Commissioners’ Jan. 9 meeting. The move prevailed in a party-line vote, three Republicans against two Democrats.

As the drought of 2016 progressed, flows of streams and rivers dwindled region-wide — and the Tuckasegee River, water source for most of Jackson County, was no exception.

fr dougcodyDoug Cody was quite clear in his request to the Jackson County Commissioners when he showed up at their meeting this month. He likes serving on the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority board, and with his term set to expire Dec. 31, he wanted to be reappointed.

What goes in must come out: that’s the basic premise behind your water and sewer bill. Sewer fees simply mirror the water bills. 

Last month, officials from the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority and the Town of Sylva clashed over who was responsible for fixing a clogged town sewer line.

The issue has since been resolved, with TWASA’s board voting 4-1 to reimburse Sylva for the cost of the repair after all. But the larger issue of what to do with “orphan” sewer lines that don’t appear on TWASA’s maps remains.

A committee representing all of the entities that formed the TWASA two decades ago has been convened to examine and interpret TWASA’s charter, according to Board Chairman Randall Turpin

At stake is whether TWASA is responsible for maintaining and repairing lines that weren’t on the original maps back when the newly formed private enterprise took over Sylva’s water and sewer system in the early ‘90s.

“How do we categorize the lines that weren’t identified at that time?” Turpin said.

TWASA’s has a policy not to repair small lines that didn’t appear on the original maps.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody doesn’t understand how such a policy could be in place.

“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.”

But while TWASA’s charter document clearly gives the authority the responsibility to operate and maintain the entire system, it also gives it broad discretion to determine how and when to repair, upgrade and maintain the sewer lines.

The TWASA board felt it was important to pay Sylva back for the clog in order to move forward with a more productive discussion, according to TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline.

But they also wanted the municipalities to understand the planning process that goes into upgrades and maintenance of the system.

Turpin said TWASA relies on a regimented capital improvement plan that goes through its Water and Sewer Projects Committee, a system set up in the charter document.

Turpin said the authority has to be able to budget for maintenance and upgrades each year based on projected revenues. Spur of the moment repairs on unmapped lines present a problem.

“If there’s lines that are identified out there that we can get to the WASP committee and into the capital improvement plan, then that’s a positive outcome,” Turpin said.

TWASA already has a board made up of representatives from Jackson County, Dillsboro and Sylva. But Turpin wanted to get other people into the discussion, so he asked the municipalities to appoint members.

Jackson County commissioners refused to make an appointment, saying that County Chairman Brian McMahan could represent the county through the seat he already has on the TWASA board.

The committee will include Brad Moses, Larry Phillips, Chuck Wooten and Brian McMahan from the existing TWASA board; Maurice Moody and Chris Matheson from Sylva; and Mike Fitzgerald and Wade Wilson from Dillsboro. The subcommittee will meet for the first time at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 8, at TWASA’s main office.

Matheson said she was happy to serve on the committee, but she was still slightly confused about why she was needed.

“If going into the meeting, the idea is that the forming document is valid and binding and we just have to make sure everybody is on the same page, I’m fine with that,” Matheson said.

But she said Sylva’s board hasn’t changed its position that TWASA needs to repair broken lines when they cause problems.

Turpin said the meeting would provide a unique opportunity to talk through the issue of orphan lines and capital improvement planning.

“We have annual meetings with all the forming entities but this is the first time since I’ve been on the board that all of the entities have come together over a common concern,” Turpin said.

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.

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