Residents of a neighborhood near Mount Airy where brown-colored water flows from faucets will be getting relief sooner rather than later.
Often when city and Surry County officials work jointly to serve such an area — outside the corporate limits where the municipality is the nearest provider — it requires months of meetings, negotiations and a wellspring of issues just as murky.
But the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has decided to cut to the chase, voting last Thursday to take the lead role in supplying water to the Shay Street/Kimberly Drive neighborhood in the Bannertown area.
However, the issue was decided by a 3-2 decision that reflected some officials’ fear the move could wind up as a losing proposition for the city financially, surrounding its lack of legal authority for mandatory hookups.
“It’s a gamble,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said at Thursday’s meeting. “But people out there need water.”
Brinkley subsequently voted in favor of the city spearheading a water line extension to the neighborhood, joining commissioners Dean Brown and Jon Cawley. The board’s Jim Armbrister and Steve Yokeley cast the “no” votes.
The Shay Street/Kimberly Drive neighborhood has been plagued with bad H2O for some time and county officials have explored possible remedies since last year, centered on the line extension from nearby Mount Airy. In February, the city commissioners committed to half the cost of a $139,150 project with the county to bring that about.
No mandatory hookups
Despite both local governments being willing to fund that effort, various “technical issues” arose recently which stood in the way of seeking construction bids and having the water line installed, according to City Attorney Hugh Campbell.
One involves mandatory hookups and a Catch 22-type predicament surrounding the need to ensure there will be enough paying customers to make the project feasible.
Mount Airy can’t require mandatory connections, since the Shay Street/Kimberly Drive neighborhood is outside its jurisdiction. The county does possess that authority — but only if it has ownership interest in the water lines, Campbell explained. This includes financing and owning those facilities for a period of time.
Eventually, those lines would be turned over to Mount Airy, which would supply the water and bill the residents for its use, based on discussion at the meeting.
Also, Campbell mentioned then, it has been assumed that the county would be the lead agency for the project, since the area in question is outside the city. But County Attorney Ed Woltz has advised Campbell that the municipality is in the best position to take on that role since it has a water department and related capabilities the county lacks.
“So that’s the county’s position,” Campbell related. “The city’s position might be different.”
After weighing at length a suggestion from Commissioner Brinkley that co-ownership of the lines by the city and county be explored as a solution, Mount Airy officials decided this might require a protracted process that further delayed service to the neighborhood.
That led to a motion by Commissioner Cawley that the city expedite the matter by taking the lead role in the project, which includes municipal ownership and no mandatory connections — only a request that those occur.
“The people that we’re talking about don’t have acceptable water,” said Cawley, who has been concerned that only half of the 24 property owners agreed to hook up to public water in an initial survey. But he said the need of residents there is the big concern for him.
“That’s a life issue.”
“If this will speed things up, I’m certainly for it,” Commissioner Brown said of Cawley’s motion.
However, commissioners Yokeley and Armbrister had concerns about taking that route.
“What if only one or two people hook up?” Yokeley said. “What are you going to do then?”
“We’re taking a gamble,” Brinkley acknowledged, “but I think there will be hookups.”
“I really don’t think that’s an issue,” Brown said, predicting that when homeowners see the lines going in, there will be a lot of interest.
“Financing might be an issue,” he said of an $800 tap-on fee requirement and other costs associated with receiving city water.
Yokeley said he favored some action that would involve mandatory connections.
“They’re not citizens of Mount Airy,” he said of those in the affected neighborhood. “It would not be in the best interest of city residents.”
Those in town are required to hook on to the city utility systems, or pay a monthly administrative fee that recognizes the fact others have gone to the expense of connecting.
Armbrister also said he doesn’t believe it is fair for Mount Airy to ask more of its residents than those out of town.
“I think it should be the minimum standards we require of our own citizens,” he said.
Cawley said one leveling factor will occur through a municipal policy that requires outside water users to pay higher rates.
“We’re charging these people double because they’re not in the city,” he said.
Cawley repeated his oft-stated position that he doesn’t believe this is right, but the residents in the Shay Street/Kimberly Drive area are in need, he reasoned.
Jim Locke, a Shay Street resident, said after Thursday’s meeting that 16 of 18 property owners had agreed to sign up for water in the latest survey.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.