COVINGTON — Issues related to water service in Newton County appear to be the major sticking point as the county and cities continue to try to come to terms on an updated Service Delivery Strategy.
While the Newton County Board of Commissioners is seeking another extension to the Service Delivery Strategy negotiations, leaders of at least two of the six cities — Covington and Newborn — have voted against seeking an extension, and Porterdale has indicated it will not support an extension. Oxford is seeking the county’s agreement to a water strategy in exchange for the extension.
The Covington City Council voted against the extension at its May 22 meeting. At the time, Mayor Ronnie Johnston said he felt it was appropriate to deny the request in order to keep the county working on the plan.
Since then, Covington and the county have come to agreements on animal control, municipal elections, best practices for stormwater management, and tax collections, and have possible agreements on 911 and jail costs, but Johnston said an agreement on paying for water system improvements is a point of dispute with the cities.
“The water one is a bit of a bone of contention with the mayors,” Johnston said. “They don’t necessarily want to have a say, but they want to be a part of the process of when the cities’ (rates) go up and why and all that kind of stuff. The county has kind of drug their feet on that… In reality, we have not had any real say in that process at all, and so we’re trying to get some, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen.”
County Manager Lloyd Kerr told commissioners last week that what the mayors are requesting amounts to too much control over the county’s water operations.
The cities initially requested that their wholesale water rates be reduced by 71 cents per thousand gallons. According to the cities, that figure represents the portion of the water rate attributed to debt service that the county pays for upgrades and expansion of the water supply and treatment system. In particular, the cities argue that debt service related to the purchase of land for the now-shelved Bear Creek reservoir project should not be passed on to their water customers.
However, commissioners have indicated they have no intention of taking debt service out of the wholesale water rate.
In addition, Kerr said last week that the county would not agree to a request by the cities for more control over capital improvements to the water system. Kerr said the cities requested that an advisory committee made up of a representative from each city and from the county be established. Kerr said the cities are asking that the committee have a vote on any capital improvement not included in the county’s five-year capital improvement plan.
“We certainly have no objection to an advisory group or if they want to make recommendations to the board,” said Kerr, “but as far as the decision-making process on what projects the county would undertake as improvements to the water system, we decided that is not an appropriate position or an appropriate authority that the cities should have.”
Oxford Mayor Jerry Roseberry has been a vocal critic of including the Bear Creek costs in wholesale water rates. Roseberry said contrary to some news reports, Oxford wants to be able to pay “it’s fair share.”
“The project was presented as being for the ‘future growth of Newton County,’ but the burden of paying for the project was placed on current public water customers,” Roseberry said. “The costs should have been borne by all of Newton County. The county’s wholesale water rate increased 49.3% in a nine-year period.
“The county attorneys have been provided a draft copy of the cities’ proposed water strategy… Oxford will agree to the extension, but only if the water strategy agreement is completed and signed.”
Newborn voted last week not to request the SDS extension.
“The towns have been somewhat hesitant to sign off on the plan until the county gives us a little more say-so, especially with the water development,” said Mayor Gregg Ellwanger, adding he believed the cities and county were close to an agreement.
Ellwanger said he believes the county has been stalling on getting the SDS finalized.
“If it doesn’t get signed it’s not a huge loss,” he said. “It will put more heat on the county to get it done because they don’t want to be out of compliance.”