Vass Grills County on Utilities
Tired of delays, Vass town leaders grilled Moore County officials about inaction on sewer facility issues Monday night.
County Manager Cary McSwain and Ben Vaughn of the Public Works Department took most of the heat during the regular meeting of the Vass Town Board of Commissioners.
However, County Commission-er Tim Lea told town officials that the Moore County Board of Commissioners is actually where "the buck stops." Commissioners' Board Chairman Nick Picerno also attended the meeting.
"Without the help of the county and Public Works and the state, we're going to sit stagnant while everything around us grows," said a frustrated Vass Mayor Eddie Callahan. "We want to be able to contribute to the county and the entire state."
Callahan said that with growth expected from BRAC and the town's strategic location, Vass is in a position to grow and to provide "smart growth." BRAC (Base Realignment and Closing) is expected to bring broad expansion into counties adjacent to Fort Bragg.
Callahan pointed out that Vass is within easy driving distance of the Research Triangle as well as the military base.
"We ask simple questions, but all we've gotten are vague, almost insulting answers," Callahan said.
McSwain said the county has been working diligently with Vass leaders in efforts to replace the town's aging sewage treatment plant and replace it with a lift station.
However, the county faces a series of obstacles brought on by the sluggish economy and other issues. For example, grant applications to the state are presently stalled because the governor has called in these funding sources to balance the state budget.
The county applied to the Rural Center for a grant and received a one-year extension, but McSwain said that once again the government took back the money and deferred payment.
"We will continue to press that project," McSwain said.
But the Vass leaders complained that they have been hearing the same answers to their questions ever since the municipality donated its utilities to Moore Water and Sewer Authority (MoWASA) in 1992. MoWASA is now defunct, and its functions have since been absorbed into the county's Department of Public Works.
They wanted to know why there is no line item in the list of projected 2011-2018 capital projects for extension of sewer lines throughout the town of Vass.
Although the water system covers the entire town, the sewer system serves no more than about 25 percent of the town population, both residential and business. This information was furnished to The Pilot by the mayor, Town Clerk Jody Smith and Giles Hopkins, acting planning director, after the meeting with county officials.
Smith said the town is in a position to stimulate growth by taking advantage of a Rural Center grant of $1 million but lacks the estimated $270,000 for engineering, design and land acquisition to begin work on the lift station. This would also make the town eligible for federal stimulus funds, but without the money to plan for the facility, the town cannot secure funds for construction on its own.
Smith made it clear that townspeople are tired of seeing capital projects valued at millions of dollars for Pinehurst and environs when their community appears to be left out.
Vaughn opened the county's portion of the meeting with a presentation of the county's water and sewer capital improvement projects program, beginning with projects carried out in 2007.
In that year, the county program provided $300,000 for water tank rehabilitation in Vass and Seven Lakes West. Total projects for the year totaled $4.6 million.
Nothing for Vass is included in the 2009 projections, amounting to $12.7 million, although some projects, such as equipment purchases, will benefit all areas of the county utilities systems.
However, in the 2010 program Vass would benefit from a $4,275,000 item to build a Little River regional lift station. The 2010 program also includes $12.6 million for the first year of the upgrade of the countywide wastewater treatment plant at Addor.
Projections for the 2011-2018 period include $26,150,000 for the second and third years of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade and $20 million for a new treatment facility at Robbins.
Many of the projects under way and planned in the future cover needs at Pinehurst, where aging terracotta sewer pipes cause major problems on a regular basis and where a Lake Pinehurst sewer rehabilitation project is overdue.
'Short End of Stick'
"We need to know when we can extend sewer lines," Callahan said. "We have sat patiently waiting for answers, and we've gotten very little in response."
McSwain explained that the county must respond first to the most acute needs and to the areas with the most dense population, which happens to be Pinehurst.
Payment for projects comes from grants and loans as well as from retained earnings within the funds accumulated from fees paid by customers.
Town Commissioner Margaret Cirone wanted to know why Vass must generate money on its own when the town's customers pay the same rates that are charged to customers in Pinehurst, Seven Lakes and other parts of the county system.
"Why can you borrow money for Pinehurst but not for Vass?" Cirone said. "We all pay the same rate."
Vaughn replied, "We didn't say 'can't.' We have to prioritize where there is the most critical need."
Cirone persisted, saying that she did not understand why the town, which has been paying rates to the county (or through MoWASA) ever since 1992, has not raised some profit.
"We've got nothing," she said. "Everything we've gotten has been from grants. If we're part of the system and pay the same rate, I don't understand why you can't borrow money for us."
"We realize Vass has a need, and we just ask that you continue to work with us and be patient," McSwain said,
Commissioner George Blackwell said the town has made no progress at all.
"We're on the short end of the stick," Blackwell said.
Callahan said, "If you're looking out for our best interest, then you're doing a lousy job."
He called it a disservice to the entire county to neglect Vass while devoting most of its attention to Pinehurst. He pointed out that not everyone lives in Pinehurst or within a six-mile radius of Pinehurst and that other communities have genuine needs that are not being addressed.
"Don't just throw us a bone and expect us to stay idle for 18 years," Callahan said.
Vass officials renewed their pleas for attention and asked McSwain for advice about getting to the top of the list.
"What should we do?" Callahan asked. "We're tired of being left behind. We want to move forward."
"We can't grow because we can't get our sewer plant done," said Smith, the town clerk.
In their frustration, the Vass board did receive sympathy from Commissioner Tim Lea, who said he understood the frustration. Lea said that McSwain and Vaughn had been gracious in accepting responsibility for the situation in Vass but said the Board of Commissioners is actually the body responsible for the direction of improvements in county utilities.
Lea said he understands why the people of Vass might get the impression that all the money is being spent in Pinehurst but explained that the need is acute there. He promised to ask Public Works to re-evaluate the capital improvements needs and to make a recommendation to the county commissioners.
"I understand that growth doesn't come if the infrastructure is not in place," Lea said.
Lea said the same issue exists across the county because "everybody wants to move here." But he added that the county faces enormous financial constraints because of economic conditions, including funding losses caused by the state's tight budgeting situation. He also noted that the state is now trying to turn road-building responsibility over to the counties, something that has not been done since the 1930s.
In an April 16 letter confirming the McSwain and Vaughn appearances Monday night, Callahan said the town is concerned about the limited capacity of its 21-year old wastewater treatment plant and completion of sewer lines promised more than 16 years ago when the Vass systems were given to MoWASA.
The town also provided county officials with a list of questions about capital improvements, including how projects are prioritized and how much money is available for appropriation from the Enterprise Fund Balance for utilities.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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