When Jim Locke approached the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners carrying a small Mason-like jar, it appeared he was preparing to present city officials with a container of honey.
But after Locke, a Shay Street resident (and apparently not a beekeeper), strolled to a podium to speak during a public forum at last Thursday’s board meeting, what was in the glass jar became clear — even though it was anything but.
What the container held was not honey, nor nectar of the gods, nor Granddaddy’s moonshine — but a sample of well water from Locke’s neighborhood just outside Mount Airy, where testing has revealed a high lead content.
“That’s our water,” explained Robin Angel, another Shay Street property owner who presented her jar of dingy, orange-colored muck.
“That’s our shower,” Angel said in listing the quality of H2O available for typical household needs.
“And if you have the guts to drink it, it’s our drinking water.”
Locke and Angel were at the city commissioners’ meeting to highlight what one Surry County official has called a “desperate” situation in the Shay Street/Kimberly Drive neighborhood — which is in the Bannertown area outside Mount Airy’s corporate limits.
Their appearance, on behalf of residents of the area as a whole, was in conjunction with city officials’ scheduled discussion later in the meeting on a possible solution to the water-quality problem. That would be extending a 6-inch public water line 2,750 linear feet from Mount Airy to the neighborhood at an estimated cost of $139,150.
The city commissioners subsequently committed to paying half of that with Surry County in a 5-0 vote last Thursday in the hopes the project might be funded by grants.
However, the neighborhood’s presence outside the corporate limits presents complications that produced a flow of debate beforehand.
Survey bothers Cawley
Mount Airy officials want to help the residents in need, evidenced by concerns voiced and the money being committed, but it was obvious that they aren’t totally happy with the arrangement.
Commissioner Jon Cawley cited results of a county-initiated survey that showed 12 of the 24 property owners affected expressed a willingness to pay a monthly fee of $30 to $40 for water service, in addition to the quantities consumed.
That 50-percent support rate bothered Cawley, as did the fact the survey question did not include the disclosure that an $800 connection fee will be required for each home hooking up to the city water system.
This suggests the residents “are not getting a true picture,” it was noted at the meeting, which hinted that the survey support likely would’ve been even less if they were presented with the full costs involved with becoming municipal water customers.
Surry Commissioner Larry Johnson, one of two Mount Airy District representatives on the county governing board, attended the council meeting and offered an explanation for the 12-of-24 survey result.
Johnson said the 12 property owners who didn’t respond favorably might simply have become frustrated that something hasn’t been done to help the neighborhood.
This sparked a debate about the water-connection willingness rate among the residents vs. the cost of the project, and the related issue of mandatory hookups.
While estimates show it would take 13.8 years for the city to recoup its up-front expense in the 50-50 split with the county ($69,575), Commissioner Johnson estimates the period would be about eight years if all residents were connected.
However, Mount Airy representatives, including City Attorney Hugh Campbell, were quick to remind Johnson that the municipality may not enforce mandatory hookup policies outside its boundaries.
The county officials legally can, but have been reluctant to take that route in the past, and discussion at last week’s meeting suggested it would be “a mistake” to give homeowners a choice about the matter.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley indicated that mandatory connections by the county would allow more to be accomplished, not just with the present crisis but other water service expansions in the future.
“Business” vs. “human” need
Despite the financial and public-policy issues raised, there was a genuine concern among Mount Airy leaders for remedying the situation for the Shay Street/Kimberly Drive neighborhood in a timely fashion.
“We’ve got two separate issues,” Commissioner Jim Armbrister said, “one on the business end and one on the human end.”
Armbrister said the council must be fair to the citizens of Mount Airy as a whole in using their tax money for such projects, but “I want to help these people have clean water.”
Cawley said he desires the same thing, not due to any particular financial motivations — “because it’s the right thing to do.”
The timetable for the water extension is a question mark.
Based on discussion at the meeting, it appeared that Mount Airy and Surry officials will sit down and hammer out the details of the latest city-county utility venture — including the mandatory hookups issue.
The action taken by the city commits to funding half the project cost while also expressing the hope the county government applies for grant funds to accomplish it as the responsible party for such efforts.
A sense of urgency was evident among Mount Airy officials.
“I’m ready to do something to make sure these people get their water,” said Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who wants to see progress reports on the matter at upcoming meetings.
“I don’t want to see this fall by the wayside,” Brinkley said in echoing sentiments voiced by Yokeley and others that the project proceed as soon as possible.
Those in attendance expressed a hope that the water line can be extended this summer.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.