The county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday night to support efforts by Vass and Robbins in appealing decisions by a state agency to deny their requests for much-needed infrastructure grants.
Both towns contend that their applications for Community Development Block Grants -- $2 million for Robbins to upgrade its water system and $1.5 million for Vass to expand its sewer system -- were turned down because of mistakes in how they were scored.
The commissioners agreed to write letters to the State Water Infrastructure Authority (SWIA), asking it to reconsider the denials. The authority meets Wednesday morning.
Robbins Town Manager David Lambert told the commissioners that its grant would allow the town to improve water quality and pressure in the area around Robbins Elementary School.
"This is a very important project, a needed project," he told the commissioners.
Lambert said town staff met with state officials this summer to look at ways to improve its chances after three previous applications were turned down. He said they were told that they met all of the requirements and that the town felt like it had "a good shot" at getting a grant.
He said the town learned late Friday that it did not make the cut.
"We we heard that the town of Robbins was not included in the department's recommendation for funding due to incomplete survey data we were shocked," Lambert wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to William Ross Jr., acting secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
Robbins was told that the reason for the denial was because of the amount of "looping" lines exceeded the 10 percent maximum allowed under the criteria. But Lambert pointed out that the state "mistakenly included" a high-pressure transmission line into its equation, pushing the amount to 23 percent.
Lambert wrote in the letter that the town would remove all instances of looping from Gardenia Street if needed. He said the town board believes that it would be "a grave injustice" for its residents if the grant is not approved.
He noted in the letter that the objective of the federally funded Community Development Block Grant program, which the state administers, is to help low-income residents in "disadvantaged communities."
"Robbins could very well be the poster child for a program like this," Lambert wrote. "If this decision stands, .04 percent, or 7 feet of pipe (which was approved prior to the application being submitted) is costing the town of Robbins, a community with a poverty rate of 36 percent, over $2 million in needed water infrastructure improvements.
"This project addresses system violations the town cannot afford, and health and safety issues that threaten the elementary school and low-income residents when the water system is not operating at its optimum performance."
Lambert said he would attended the SWIA meeting to make the town's case in appealing the decision.
In the case of the Vass application, Public Works Director Randy Gould said the state agency failed to count three household income surveys because residents filling them out had made changes on the document.
Instead of having 100 percent of the households qualifying as low- to moderate-income -- as the town thought -- it ended up being only 70 percent, Gould told the commissioners. That meant the town did not score high enough to receive a grant.
County Manager Wayne Vest said the forms filled out by residents "reflect true and accurate information" and that all of the income surveys should be considered.
The county owns and operates the water and sewer system in Vass. In addition to the grant, the county is seeking a $1.5 million federal low-interest loan for the sewer expansion.
In other businesses:
* The county received its annual financial audit report showing that revenues exceeded expenses by $4.2 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to Vest.
He pointed out that under county policy, a portion of its annual surpluses must be allocated to a capital reserve fund for future building needs including the public schools.
Vest said the county is "conservative" in its budget projections and makes efforts to reduce expenses.
That was especially important last year since property tax revenues declined by $1.8 million last year as a result of the revaluation that took effect in 2015. Overall property values declined, though some did see increases.
Vest said the commissioners could have increased the tax rate slightly to what is called the "revenue neutral" point -- which would generate the same amount of revenues, taking into account normal growth, had there been no revaluation -- but chose to leave it unchanged at 46.5 cents per each $100 of value.
He said that amounted to a rate reduction for many property owners, which generated less revenue for the county.
The county's reserves, called a fund balance, increased by $1.4 million to $27 million last year, of which $19.5 million is available for spending.
* Following an hour long quasi-judicial hearing, the commissioners unanimously approved a conditional use permit for a 12-acre solar farm on Jason Road in the far northwestern part of the county.
No one spoke against the request by Sanford-based Renesolas.
The commissioners approved a permit for the project in May 2015, but it expired since no work had been done. The company modified its plan to slightly increase the acreage, though the amount of panels stayed the same.
Some of the commissioners expressed skepticism that no glare from the panels would be visible from surrounding homes, as the company contended.
Project Manager April Montgomery said they did modify their plan to add more landscaping after two surrounding property owners expressed concern about the appearance of the solar farm during a public hearing by the Planning Board in early December. The board voted 4-1 to recommend that the commissioners approve the permit.
The applicant presented information showing that the solar farm would be "harmonious" with the surrounding area and that it would not harm property values.
Board Chairwoman Catherine Graham said she has set through a number of these kinds of hearings and that this was the "best one" she has seen presented.
"You had your facts together," she said.
Graham also thanked Montgomery for meeting with neighboring residents and addressing their concerns.
"That speaks highly of you," she said.