BY DEBBIE PAGE
Officials from municipalities and the school systems met individually with N.C. Sen. Vickie Sawyer and Reps. Jeff McNeely and Grey Mills on Thursday to share their top priorities in hopes of getting state funding for these initiatives.
Sawyer said this was an opportunity to learn from local officials from across the county, which will enable the legislators to become better servants in Raleigh to those who elected them.
If they know each entity’s specific needs, Iredell’s representatives can work together to write bills and grab funding opportunities that arise to benefit Iredell County citizens, Sawyer explained.
Troutman Mayor Teross Young, Town Council members Felina Harris and Jerry Oxsher, Town Manager Ron Wyatt, Parks and Recreation Director Emily Watson, Public Works Director Adam Lippard, and Town Engineer Benji Thomas presented the town’s needs.
Wyatt said being the “little guy” in the county means that the town has been overlooked in the past. “It’s a tough situation when funding is uncertain,” especially in light of the recent rapid growth and resulting demands that Troutman is experiencing.
Mayor Young said that town has not asked for a lot in the past, “but the growth of the town is extraordinary. To help our ability to manage that growth, we absolutely need help on infrastructure.”
Since he entered town government in 2013, Young has taken part in many negotiations with neighboring municipalities and moved the needle a bit, but now “we have got to move forward.”
Wyatt also noted that Troutman’s growth will benefit its neighbors to the north, with the Wakefield development adding a grocery store, medical facilities, and retail shops and services for people outside of Troutman, so helping to serve the town’s commercial growth with increased water and sewer capacity would be appreciated.
Troutman also serves Statesville and county residents through the one charter and four Iredell-Statesville Schools schools located in Troutman, which only have a small percentage of resident students but require significant town resources.
Planning for future water and sewer needs through negotiations with nearby municipalities is complex. The town presently gets its water supply from EnergyUnited out of Catawba County and its sewer treatment from Statesville and Mooresville.
In the 1990s, Wyatt explained, the town had its own sewer treatment facility, but the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources ordered the town to close its treatment plant and return its operation permit in an effort to create consolidated regional water/sewer networks to lessen environmental impacts.
As a result, the town has been been put at the mercy of Statesville, Mooresville, and EnergyUnited for water and sewer services.
Mayor Young noted that the state has used its sewer treatment permitting leverage to put Troutman and other small towns in this situation, forcing them into a consolidated system for environmental protection but leaving them to beg for capacity.
He said N.C. League of Municipality proposals to get larger towns to be more flexible and cooperative with smaller towns to solve this problem will be coming to legislators soon.
Wyatt said a regional approach is needed, with a regional authority to oversee all water and sewer capacity distribution to ensure all cities, towns, and counties have their water and sewer needs met for their populations, as is done in other parts of the country.
However, a projected 5-year study, followed by a 10-year implementation, is not an immediate solution.
Water and sewer rates rose significantly for Troutman residents on July 1. Increases over the last six years from EnergyUnited, the town’s current water supplier, caused a 20 percent water and sewer rate increase, reflecting an inflationary 7 percent increase in 2022 and a total of 17.3 percent in increases since 2016-17.
Council members were unaware of this creeping rise in costs over the past five years, which Finance Director Justin Mundy, who joined the town staff last September, discovered in the process of constructing this year’s budget proposal.
Because the increases over the past five years were not passed on to customers and utility funds must be self-sustaining, the increase was necessary to catch up with the cost increases and provide a small cushion for expected increases in 2023.
Wyatt said Troutman has been negotiating with Statesville to buy 1 million gallons of water at a bulk rather than retail rate, but though talks have recently been going more favorably, nothing has been finalized.
The town is also negotiating with EnergyUnited and Mooresville for water contracts in anticipation of future needs, but Mooresville is asking to reduce their sewer contract with Troutman before opening water purchase talks because of concerns about its own growth.
To purchase water, Statesville is the simplest solution because the two towns already have water connections and the city has capacity, but Troutman wants to pay at a more fair bulk rate.
Wyatt said that Troutman needs this 1 million gallons in increased water capacity to meet future needs, but “we also don’t expect to spend 30 or 40 percent more for it, which is what our current rate would be with Statesville.”
Thomas said in 20 years, the town will need 3 million gallons of water per day to serve its customers.
In sewer needs, the town gets 90 percent of its sewer treatment from Statesville, with 10 percent flowing to Mooresville. Troutman could get more sewer capacity with Mooresville but would have to upgrade its infrastructure more to increase flow.
Using grant funds and low-interest loans the town has received the two few years, the town is already upgrading its infrastructure toward Mooresville. Paying them for incremental increases also helps Mooresville expand its sewer capacity.
Wyatt said that just Wakefield at Barium Springs will double the number of citizens in Troutman in 10 years, and Murdock Road has increasing commercial growth, so getting more water and sewer is essential.
The town needs $10 million in funding for future infrastructure upgrades to the system to get water and sewer services from Statesville, Mooresville, and EnergyUnited.
If Troutman does not get an agreement with Statesville, the town will need even more money to get more lines to Mooresville and build a $3 million water tank.
The mayor added the town is not asking for anything free; it wants to pay other towns for necessary water and sewer services.
Wyatt told the representatives that because of the recreation situation in the county, ESC Park facilities and fields are used by Babe Ruth and other groups who are not Troutman residents, so helping with park upgrades benefits county residents as well.
For ESC Park, Wyatt requested $880,000 to light the park and $600,000 for the concession stand/bathrooms (rising from the $350,000 original estimate because of inflation and building material shortages causing cost increases).
Watson emphasized this bare bones 25 by 30 foot building has two toilets and a sink for the two bathrooms and a concession area with a sliding window.
The town is funding park projects each year and budgeting funds incrementally for larger projects like the concession stand, but Wyatt said a small town does not have the funds to go forward with big projects and fund the park that so many county residents use.
McNeely noted that all municipalities and entities within the county need to work together to be efficient. He proposed getting all the county partners together in early December to facilitate discussion of water and sewer issues in the county.
“We are in a dilemma,” said Wyatt, “so I certainly think maybe conversation with you could help ease the situation. We want to be willing working partners, but we are trying to offer a solution, and it certainly appears that infrastructure and capacity being allowed will benefit Statesville equally as us.”
Mayor Young added, “We aren’t asking them to give it to us. We are asking to pay for it, and we are not getting it.”
McNeely was concerned about the disconnect and said that those with needs like Troutman must get help.
“Needs are needs. We are all citizens of Iredell County at the end of the day,” said McNeely, who said that water and sewer capacity is important to the economic development and job creation in the county.
Mayor Young said the town is trying to generate interest with the county and Statesville in developing the Murdock Road/Old Mountain Road corridor from I-77 to the airport to I-40 as an economic driver for Iredell County. He added that Raleigh should look at this corridor as a regional economic and job engine as well.
Thomas noted that the infrastructure that developers and the town will add in the Wakefield at Barium Springs development will become the backbone of the Duck Creek Basin services. He said a reasonable agreement for water and sewer is necessary to facilitate the economic development and jobs created by the development’s commercial area.
Mayor Young seconded the need for the municipalities and county to come together with Iredell’s state representatives to talk about things that benefit to the entire region instead of running to them individually. “The conversation is much better if we can do it together,” he said.