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February 29, 2016
Oriental’s Town Board holds a public hearing on March 1 on 7 proposed changes to the GMO. One would require that anyone outside the town limits who seeks to get on the Town of Oriental’s water system must also apply for annexation in to Oriental. The current disconnect became apparent in the fall of 2013 when the Town Board let Walmart get Town water even as the retailer refused to be annexed in to town where Oriental’s development standards and property taxes would apply. One rationale for the Town Board action was that the water plant needed customers.
(In its 20-month existence just outside Oriental, Walmart, as it turned out, paid between $120-$140 a month for water and sewer. Town Manager Diane Miller says that is about equal to what 2 to 3 households pay. The Town did not receive all of the $120; more than half of that money went to the Bay River Sewer Authority.)
Since Walmart closed this winter, the idea of requiring annexation for water service has become more popular. Not, however, with everyone. Former Town Commissioner Larry Summers writes in to oppose the idea:
The Town of Oriental’s Planning Board seems to have decided to usurp the Water Advisory Committee and The Board of Commissioners powers for itself. According to NC General Statute 160A-360 (a) the Planning Board only has powers within the corporate limits of the town. Trying to make a Growth Management Ordinance (GMO) prohibiting the town from providing water outside the town limits without annexation seems beyond its scope.
In addition and far more important to the water customers of the town are the financial implications for the Water Fund. The Water Fund is operated separately from the town General Fund. It is what is called an “Enterprise Fund” by the state. It is required by law to operate with a positive cash flow. It needs to sell water to pay its expenses and to fund a reserve fund capable of handling any major system failures and regular repairs. The Oriental water system was originally established in the 1970s and rebuilt in 2002-03 with a major grant. That grant was justified on a number of factors but included selling water outside of the town limits and adding a capability of providing water for growth particularly in the area between Whittaker and Pierce Creeks. A substantial part of that land is not in the town limits.
The town water plant has been upgraded in the last several years by a combination of self-help and small contracts to the tune of about $150,000. We brought in several engineering companies and the estimated cost for those projects ran from about $500,000 to $1,000,000. We dodged a bullet with careful management and planning. It will probably not last as long as a complete rebuild but was done within our resources. It will continue to cost us money to maintain. A major failure of the plant, pipelines or one of our wells could shatter our efforts. As of the last audit (2014) that I have seen we had a reserve in the fund of $157,873. That level of reserve would not come close to building a replacement well or replacing major infrastructure.
As a former commissioner liaison and a founder of the current Water Advisory Committee I advised that we needed to build a reserve of around $500,000. We must make every effort to sell water and add customers to meet that level of reserve. While the idea has merit for the town tax base, it is a bad idea if we wish to maintain our own town water system. It might be more appropriate for the Planning Board to look at the question of why no one wants to be annexed into the town. It might perhaps be overregulation. Under the current GMO restrictions, for example, the Town and Country building, most of the churches and our larger businesses would exceed the 6000 square foot limit for any structure and could not even be built.
The writer served as Town Commissioner from 2012 to 2015.
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