If Moore County won't help pay for an engineering study of one option for bringing more water to its citizens, Representative Jamie Boles figures it's time to ask the citizens themselves for the funding, and Seven Lakes Civic group is chipping in $100 to help.
Boles announced on Friday, June 25 that the Moore County Chamber of Commerce was establishing a fund and seeking contributions to raise Moore County's $2,500 share of the cost of a $78,000 preliminary engineering study that aims to estimate the cost of bringing water from the Lumber River to Moore County and to other participating counties and towns.
The Seven Lakes Civic Group announced on Tuesday that it would be contributing $100 toward the effort.
"The Seven Lakes community, the third largest community in Moore County, has been the recipients of a number of water use restrictions imposed by Moore County Public Utilities over the last several years," noted the Civic Group's press release announcing the contribution." The County has been studying the problem in depth for more than four years with no plan of action yet to be in place. The Seven Lakes Civic Group supports a regional approach for the long term solution to Moore County’s water supply problems."
Moore County's Board of Commissioners on June 21 voted against providing the $2,500 local match requested by the Lumber River Council of Governments [LRCOG], which is assembling a group of interested counties and municipalities to fund a study of water distribution and wastewater collection costs required to connect those communities to a water and wastewater plant near Wagram, in Scotland County. Half of the study's $78,000 cost will be covered by a grant from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center; LRCOG is using a federal grant to pick up another $22,375 of the tab.
The county contends that a state senator and two representatives — including Boles — promised from the initial organizational meetings that the state would cover the whole cost of the study. Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lea made that point in a June 24 letter to Boles informing him of the county's decision not to contribute the requested $2,500.
The next day, Boles held a press conference and announced his plan to ask citizens to support the effort.
"If the county don't want to step up to the plate," Boles said, "that's fine. Let the citizens step up to the plate."
County sees little potential for Wagram as water source
Commissioner Lea told The Times that state legislators had in fact failed to deliver on promises to fund the engineering study.
"That was a commitment that was made up front by those that were moving this forward," Lea said. "But this is not about the money. It's about whether this is a good strategic business decision for the ratepayers of Moore County."
Lea said the engineering firm Hobbs-Upchurch & Associates had provided the county with estimates that put the ultimate price of water from the Wagram plant at $6 to $8 per thousand gallons.
"The county just signed a contract with Southern Pines that provides our ratepayers with water at $2.10 per thousand gallons," Lea told The Times, noting that the county purchases water from Harnett County at roughly the same price.
"Do the ratepayers really want us to spend time and money to look at this opportunity that could double or triple their water bills?" Lea asked.
Study would estimate connection costs
The proposed study involves industrial water and wastewater treatment plants near Wagram, in Scotland County, which once served a sprawling textile plant. The facilities were brought to the attention of the County and its municipalities by the 2008 McGill & Associates study of the county's long-term water needs and possible sources to meet those needs.
The Village of Pinehurst attempted to buy the plants and use them as the cornerstone of a regional water alliance, but that attempt was thwarted when the Scotland County Board of Commissioners withheld an approval needed for the deal to go through.
A 2008 engineering report prepared for Scotland County by The Wooten Company estimated the fair market value of the plants and the cost of rehabilitating them. The new LRCOG study would supplement that study by estimating the cost of laying water and sewer lines to connect the plants to surrounding counties and towns.
LRCOG Executive Director Jim Perry told The Times that both Scotland County and Robeson County, as well as the municipalities of Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen, Pinebluff, Laurinburg, Maxton, and Red Springs, had agreed to participate in funding the study. If the Rural Center grant application is approved, Perry said, the study will move forward, whether or not Moore County chooses to participate.
Boles: Water key to economic development
"This is not a redundant study," Boles told The Times. "It addresses the distribution cost. The local governments want the facts about what it would cost to bring these plants on line. This is just the last piece of the answer to that question."
Boles said water is key to continued economic development in the county.
"If we don't look for answers to our water needs and work to build partnerships regionally," he told The Times, "then we are being short-sighted about the future of Moore County."
If enough citizens and businesses contribute to the fund, Boles said "this may be a statement to the county to please look at this option."
Boles told The Times that Moore County's argument has been that state senators and representatives stated they could get state money to pay for the study.
"We did come up with $39,000 in state money." Boles said. "Times have changed," he added, making reference to belt-tightening at the state brought on by the economic downturn.
Chamber no newcomer to water issues
The Chamber had contributions and pledges totaling $970 by Wednesday, July 7.
"We have seen private citizens kick in $25," Chamber President and CEO Patrick Coughlin said. "Businesses, like Boles Funeral Home, have contributed $100."
"We're going to stop accepting contributions, once we reach $2,500," Coughlin added. "We don't want people to be uncertain about where the money is going."
Asked why the Chamber had agreed to help Boles raise Moore County's contribution to the study, the Chamber President told The Times the project "fits with our mission and where we have historically placed our priorities — on water and inter-local cooperation."
He noted that the Chamber was active in bringing together Moore County's local governments to fund the 2008 McGill and Associates study of the county's water needs and potential water sources. "We have been a facilitator of the Moore County Summit and its water task force," Coughlin added.
"When Representative Boles called and told me his idea to go out to the public and solicit contributions to come up with the $2,500, we thought that was a good fit for the Chamber's involvement, Coughlin explained.
Asked where the Wagram plants fit in the priority list for the Summit's Water Task Force, Coughlin said it was their number one out-of-county priority, with bringing water from Robbins to Seven Lakes their number one in-county priority.
"The water task force agrees that Wagram is probably the biggest potential and the number one priority outside the county. It presents an opportunity that no other option does, which is to own water production capacity."
Coughlin explained that most of the other options on the table envision purchasing water from neighboring counties or municipalities — sources that could literally dry up when they choose to serve their own citizens first in times of drought.
"This, to the Chamber is a logical next step," Coughlin told The Times. "It appears that the local governments need a little more information about what the cost will be to get it up and running and to extend the distribution system."
"Some folks have done back of the envelope estimates based on average costs to lay twelve-inch water mains in North Carolina. What this is going to do is put hard numbers to specific locations to which the distribution systems will go."
"This study will tell us whether we will be able to bring Wagram water to Moore County affordably or not," Coughlin said.
As for the Seven Lakes Civic Group's contribution, Coughlin said, "We would be thrilled with the participation of the folks out in Seven Lakes. Right now Seven Lakes has one little water pipe coming in, and we need to change that."