DOBSON — A lengthy meeting between the boards of commissioners of Surry County and Mount Airy Wednesday night yielded two outcomes: That a goal of June 30 has been set for a draft agreement on the Interstates Sewer Project, and that the county will do whatever is necessary to put Mount Airy in the Flat Rock/Bannertown water and sewer business.
During the meeting, held in the conference room of the Surry County Government Center, county officials told the board that an initial draft agreement that stipulated the city would take over the beleaguered system, which is losing around $66,000 a year, was by no means set in stone.
County Board Chair Eddie Harris said the county would do whatever is necessary to make the takeover a profitable one for the city.
“At no time have I as chair of this board, or any member of this board, ever advocated that the city of Mount Airy take over the (Flat Rock/Bannertown) district at a loss,” he said. “Out of this meeting today, this (county) board would be interested in seeing whether Mount Airy would agree in principal to taking over the district if the county board of commissioners could make the district profitable.”
Harris said the county would be willing to reimburse the city for any losses below the $90,000 the city receives from the system annually. The city bills and maintains the system, and in return receives 50 percent of the revenue generated.
All the county is asking, Harris said, is for the city board to “give a good solid look at taking over the district if we make it a profitable venture, and if we don’t make it a profitable venture then you don’t take it over.”
County Commissioner Paul Johnson said there are a variety of options available to the county, including mandatory hookups and options such as user fees.
Mandatory hookups in the district were not instituted when the services were extended there nearly a decade ago, and since the county is still paying off long-term debt associated with construction of the system, there are not enough customers on the system to make it profitable.
City Commissioner John Cawley said, however, that while the county could mandate the hookups, enforcement would likely fall to the city.
“I think owning the lines was something the city was always willing to accept,” he said. “Mount Airy does not mind being in the water business, but the issue is in the enforcement of those hookups.”
City Commissioner Shirley Brinkley asked the county board whether it would accept a similar offer.
“Absolutely, because it’s a good deal,” responded County Commissioner Jimmy Miller.
Once an agreement with Mount Airy is reached, the $4.6 million project will extend the service to the area west of Mount Airy in the hopes of stimulating growth in an area that both city and county officials have identified as a prime development location near the two interstates. It also will provide sewer services to Gentry Middle and North Surry High schools.
The city has pledged $1 million to the project, provided the county agree to use a gravity-fed and force-main system that will offer more capacity and the ability to connect the two schools to the system.
In addition to the money pledged by Mount Airy, the county has secured $1 million in funding from the North Carolina Rural Center, an additional $300,000 in funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, $200,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation, $150,000 through a federal Community Development Block Grant and a pledge of about $160,000 from property owners. The remaining funding, around $2.5 million, will be provided by the county, most likely through a loan.
Brinkley suggested city officials didn’t look highly on having ownership of the Flat Rock/Bannertown system included in the draft agreement.
“We’d already voted to offer up to $1 million for the Interstates project,” she said. “That bothered me. Do you think it was honest to attach the Flat Rock/Bannertown system to the agreement? That’s what bothers me the most.”
County Commissioner Larry Phillips responded that there should be a way to make the system profitable.
“The county would be the enforcement arm if necessary,” County Manager Chris Knopf responded. “What this board is talking about is would you be willing to look at a new operational agreement?”
At the end of the lengthy discussion, the county agreed to start trying to hammer out a way to make the system profitable for the city, and the city in turn agreed to try to have a draft ready for county consideration by June 30.
Knopf said the agreement, a lone permit from the state Department of Transportation and a few remaining easements are all that stand in the way of the project going out to bid.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.