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Wednesday, 08 February 2012 21:12

Build it and they still didn’t come: Wastewater plant pumps more money in than treated waste out

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Whittier’s $5 million wastewater treatment plant could be facing eventual financial insolvency, saddled with too much overhead and too few customers to make operation viable.

The sewer plant, in hindsight, was overbuilt for growth and development that failed to materialize along the U.S. 441 corridor in Jackson County that leads to Cherokee. Ten years later, the plant with a capacity to treat 200,000 gallons is handling a mere 8,000 gallons with just 36 customers.

There’s only enough money to keep operating, as-is, for two more years. Then it’s decision time for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. TWSA, formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, is the reluctant manager of Whittier’s treatment plant, a role the authority inherited. Stakeholders such as Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also must make funding decisions when current payments and savings run dry. And, Jackson County would like to see Swain start helping out after learning that most of the customers are actually residents of that county.

“This could be a little touchy,” Joe Cline, executive director of TWSA, told Jackson commissioners recently. “But, the majority of this system lies in Swain County. And they’ve never been asked to participate.”

“Looks like we should be sending someone a bill,” Commissioner Doug Cody noted.

The plant was built with grant funding, including a nest egg to subsidize operations until the customer base grew. Jackson County and the tribe struck an agreement to pitch in during the initial start-up years.

Jackson County has kicked $300,000 into the plant. It relies on the facility to handle wastewater from nearby Smokey Mountain Elementary School.

The tribe originally bought into the plant concept, to the tune of $100,000 a year for three years, in hopes of using the facility to serve a recreation complex and golf course. Cherokee, which owes one remaining $100,000 payment, ended up taking care of its own wastewater needs from the complex and golf course, arguably getting little out of its investment but making good on its promise.

The Whittier Wastewater Treatment Plant has 25 residential and 11 commercial customers. It has added just a single three-bedroom house to the customer rolls since the plant came online just more than 10 years ago. The customers served by Whittier’s wastewater treatment plant chip-in a total of $20,000 a year to the cost of operating the plant, which comes to about $180,000 annually.

It processes so little sewer that its systems have trouble functioning at times.

“We have to haul sludge to the plant when school is out to keep it operating properly,” Cline said.

Before the sewer plant was built, projections showed 40 customers had an interest in tapping in to it. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in individually owned septic systems.

“If the projections were correct, then at the end of two years, TWSA would have been able to take over and break even, debt free, with operating revenues to pay the costs of going forward. Problem is, the projections haven’t come true,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten told county commissioners recently.

Wooten emphasized that he would like to see TWSA retain its role with the plant, which is technically under the management of the Whittier Sanitary District. That group has been the target of sharp criticisms for lack of accurate recordkeeping and failures to submit timely audits to the state as required.

Still, Wooten maintained, the plant “is an asset, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a waiting game, it’s waiting on the development. But the plant will allow the development to take place.”

As of this week, Jackson County had not officially contacted Swain County about helping to offset costs at the Whittier wastewater treatment plant.

 

Such a big plant to serve so few: how the Whittier Wastewater Plant came to be

Just more than 10 years 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 leading into Cherokee.

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 Tuckasegee 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, both eventually finished and now open. Under the guidance of the Southwestern Development Commission, these stakeholders came together and built the Whittier Wastewater Plant.

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