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Questions Abound In Rice

RICE – A crowd of some sixty-plus gathered inside the Rice Fire Department Tuesday evening. It was the first of several scheduled community meetings on a proposed water project that aims to tap into the Sandy River Reservoir.

County Administrator Wade Bartlett offered an extensive overview of the plans that are being weighed by the board of supervisors.

Then came time for questions from the audience, many which came in written form.

And there were a lot.

“Why wasn't this meeting held a long time ago?” Lockett District Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones read from the stack of hand-written cards.

“…We only got the final cost estimate, I believe it was February the 10th,” County Administrator Wade Bartlett would respond.

One after another, question after question was read with intermittent verbal inquiries and comments from the audience.

The possible use of the Reservoir in an unsolicited proposal offered by Crowder Construction with the input of Draper Aden engineers, has been a simmering one and supervisors voted earlier this month to publish details in The Herald and to hold a series of community meetings.

“We need, as a board, to reach out to our public and let them know everything that we know and this is the only way I know to do it,” commented Board Chairman William “Buckie” Fore, who presented the proposal to his fellow supervisors at an April 12 meeting.

On this evening, Bartlett and Jones were on hand to try to field the questions.

The Reservoir, tucked away east of Farmville, is an option the County has been weighing in earnest in more recent years with the submission of an unsolicited proposal. Under the PPEA, or Public Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002, localities may receive unsolicited proposals from private firms-and supervisors agreed to consider the proposal, agreeing to wade in and look at the specifics of a possible water project as outlined in an interim agreement with the submitting firm.

The proposed project factors the construction of an intake, water treatment facility and service lines extending to serve an area south of Farmville to Hampden-Sydney and east to Crewe. The intake structure is penciled in with an eight million gallons (MGD) per day intake infrastructure capacity and there would be an easily expandable two MGD facility treatment facility (located about a half mile from the reservoir) that could be upgraded to four MGD.

The final estimate for the project presented to the board-factoring Crewe and Burkeville's participation-earlier this year stood a $24,879,000, though there were also estimated project indirect costs of $841,900.

Questions/Response

One by one Jones sifted through a healthy stack of cards. Factoring Bartlett's presentation, the first community meeting would stretch over two hours.

Among some of the questions and responses generated:

*The cost per line foot for accessing water (via service line) was estimated at $10-15 per foot to connect to the water system. There is also a connection fee. The County put a rate structure in place when it first purchased a water system (that Bartlett cited was meant to be temporary) with a cost of $4,500 per residence. It's the rate the Town charges out of Town customers. A lot of times, it was cited, when community runs a water line, a discount is offered.

*Those living along the line would not be required to hook up. A state code prohibits a locality from forcing someone who has a current, adequate water supply from connecting.

*”To be truthful, isn't this just for Farmville's benefit?” one question read. Jones noted that it will benefit the Town-the fact that they would offer an emergency hook-up for water during drought times-but it mostly benefits the other portions of the county not serviced by water and Crewe and Burkeville if they decide to hook up.

*Can they have a referendum? Jones noted that there has been some discussion. It would depend, Bartlett would also cite, on whether the project is done by a regional authority (which the board has created) or the County itself. If it is done by an Authority (a different entity from the board), there is no enabling legislation to allow an Authority to hold a referendum, he said. (The potential for grant funding is greater with an authority, it was noted.) The County, The Herald would later confirm, cannot hold an advisory referendum on the issue. A referendum would have to be linked to bond financing, which is one potential funding route.

*Can no tax increase be promised? “It can be done with no tax increase if the numbers we figured are right, but we would have to draw down on our reserve fund some to make that happen,” Jones said.

*Was it a no-bid process? It was cited that there was a bid and that there was a 51-day period and two or three companies contacted them, but no one else put in a bid.

*”…You use the words 'hopefully,' 'possibly' and 'potentially,'” one speaker asked Jones. “Are you (going to) spend the County's money based on hopefully, possibly and potentially?”

Bartlett would respond that it's a good question and highlighted conservative projections. He offered that on revenue projections they assumed the exact use occurring in Crewe, Burkeville and Hampden-Sydney, assumed (he estimated) about 12,000 gallons a day from Prince Edward, or a little more than they have now. They did not include Granite Falls Inn and, looking out to the future, assumed there would be no connection in the Rice area for five years and then only one each year after that. “So we were very conservative on that. We assumed there would be only one commercial connection every other year in Prince Edward County…,” Bartlett said.

*Asked about Crewe and Burkeville's participation, Bartlett noted that if they decide they don't want to move forward, there would be a scale back of the project, the cost would be “roughly right about where it is now at $19.6 (million), we would scale that back to probably about a one million gallon a day plant…but…we're not there yet, but we've looked at that to make sure that…it would be no surprise and this thing would just totally collapse.”

*Asked about a commitment from Hampden-Sydney, Bartlett cited they have asked for a proposal. “Before we would build a line to Hampden-Sydney, yes, they'd have to either say 'yes' or 'no,'” Bartlett said.

*On Farmville's proposal (resolution), Bartlett said it is the same proposal that they expounded in 2007. It is to build an intake and raw water line to send the raw water (in 2007, he cited, it was to the water plant, now it's proposed to Wilck's Lake). The cost in 2007 and updating Farmville's water plant was $20 million, Jones said.

“The only project that has been engineered to any extent is this project,” Bartlett said. “The only project that has a firm cost is this project.”

Asked about sharing the cost of the pipeline with the Town, Bartlett responded that the Town offered to share, but they don't know the cost. He also noted the Town had a willingness to share the cost, but did not say an amount.

Bartlett, referencing the Town resolution, also cited that it was “kind of contradictory,” noting that the citizen committee should look at the most cost effective method; two points later, he also commented, “the only one they want to look at is the raw water line and that they'd be willing to look at that…and then only put it in when there was a need.”

*There would be an outside engineer to inspect it and that it has to be approved by the health department.

*Do they have a signed contract with Crewe and Burkeville? No, Jones cited, they have a letter of intent from both.

*Jones cited the potential interest of a larger locality in water.

“…I know I'm not the smartest person on water issues, but it doesn't…take much to realize they got a whole lot of people that live down there,” he said. “We've got water up here in the Sandy River Reservoir, if things get tight down there, they're gonna say open the gates, send us some water, so that means Prince Edward County will lose stake on probably what I feel like is a very valuable commodity.”

Jones went on to add that he has not committed to any type of vote on the project, adding that he's trying to see the facts and figures all the way through and public comment all the way through before he makes a decision.

Jones added that he'd like to see them have enough people to join with them to where they can afford it and that he'd like to see them get some grant money to help pay for it. One possibility is building the intake (estimated to cost about $3.5 million).

*One speaker asked about the County supplying raw water to the Town and the Town supply water to Prince Edward. Jones noted it had been discussed and the last time they talked to the Town about it, they never did come to a resolution. Still, he also cited, that was then projected to cost around $21 million, which is not far from the cost of the water plant and being able to supply Crewe and Burkeville. In addition, he cited, building a raw water line to Farmville, they wouldn't be able to pick up water users on the route going into Town. (The line would not have treated water.)

*Asked if they would accept Farmville's new offer, Jones noted that they had read the offer and that they'll wait to look at the offer until after the community meetings.

“Jones assessed that they've gone too far “getting this stuff planned” to all of a sudden put on the brakes “and go, OK, let's stop and we go talk to Farmville. We'll just get a feel for what we get out of the community and then…we will revisit that offer from Farmville later in the month or something like that.”

*One speaker noted that if they are not proposing to supply water to the Town of Farmville, don't have any agreement with Hampden-Sydney College, Town of Burkeville, County of Nottoway or Crewe and the need is assumed for Prince Edward County 12,000 gallons per day, it comes out to about 10 gallons per minute.

“I've got a private well on my property that will supply 20 gallons a minute,” he said. “Why do we need the $25 million expenditure to supply…12,000 gallons of water.”

Bartlett responded that the implication is that because there isn't a signed contract, there's never going to be one. He offered that it's a false assumption. If that's the case, the board is going to have to look hard at whether they want to continue this.

*The price on the construction proposal is held to about May 31, according to Bartlett. If the County doesn't make a decision, it would increase the cost about $300,000 “then you would have another month or so, and then it may increase more then…a lot of this depends on the cost of oil.”

*Bartlett cited that the County has already spent about $5 million on building and maintaining the reservoir.

The total project cost is about $24 million. That figure, however, also factors about $4.5 million whether the system moves forward or not. (The County previously purchased a water system south of Town and secured the right to distribute water outside of Farmville. They also have the cost of the interim agreement to study the water system, project to cost about $1.8 million)

*There would be very few easements; it would not use much private property. The High Bridge Trail would be used as would VDOT right-of-way along roads, and there would be one section along some power lines.

*Asked about restrictions on landowners at the headwaters of the Reservoir, Jones responded that they talked about an RPOD (or a Reservoir Protection Overlay District) and they “gave that up.” He added, “…It won't be any restrictions, but we would greatly hope that people would abide by conservation practices and a lot of the people in that area are doing that.”

*Asked about how far in the future companies and jobs would come with the water system available, Bartlett offered that economic development is not a science. They've had many companies come and express an interest in locating. They have not had a single one, he said, that would even require 50,000 gallons of water per day, which Bartlett noted is not a big user.

“…It's pretty easy to know when you haven't had a single one look at you that there's an issue with water,” Bartlett said.

Still, he noted, he couldn't guarantee a company would come even if they had 20 million gallons of water a day. It's one of a myriad of things that companies look at. (The number one thing, he also offered is labor force.)

*One speaker suggested letting Farmville build their own line. If they build the emergency line to Town, he assessed, he said he believes it will become a permanent line. The Town, Bartlett said, is very important to the County and he noted that about 28 percent of the assessed value in real estate is inside the Town and many of the jobs are inside the town.

“It's very important that Farmville has an adequate water system,” he said.

Bartlett went on to add that it's “important for us that Farmville is very successful. We want them to be successful.”

*Asked about the chances of an old dump leaching into the lake, Bartlett noted there is no indication of any contamination. They drilled into the old dump, he also said, and took water samples out of the dumpsite and there were no volatile organic compounds in those samples.

Some Comments

One speaker offered that “use it or lose it” is not an idle threat. While noting that she didn't know what decision “we should make, but I think we should make a decision that puts in the position to keep this resource for our own growth, development and use rather than get so locked up with, I mean they're good details, good questions, but we have to keep the big picture that if we do nothing, we might have nothing.”

Brad Watson also assessed that the Town needs a partner and the County needs water.

“We need water to grow in this community,” Watson said.

However, he added, he did not see any value in the County building itself and the Town building itself.

“It's not a good economic way,” Watson commented.

He suggested the County return a proposal.

More Bartlett Comments

The prospect of Prince Edward jumping into a $25 million water project has had some opponents simmering for some time. While the County has not committed to move forward, a deadline on locked-in price is looming at the end of May (it has reportedly been pushed forward).

Bartlett summed up at the end of his presentation that the County is in an “extremely favorable financial position” when compared to other state governments when they look at debt burden, debt to assessed value, tax rate, fund balance and debt per capita. They are all very favorable, he said.

The County, Bartlett offered, has the ability to finance the project and still maintain a healthy financial ratio.

What the County could look to to help is a rate stabilization fund of $4 million, which could be tapped to assist in paying for the system.

Some Reflections

“I feel like…Wade put together a good factual documentation,” Jones said outside the firehouse after what had been a long night. “Maybe it does lean a little bit towards in favor of doing the project, but I don't think it's that far. I think it's pretty much neutral.”

He went on to add, that “all of us in the county” if someone offered to put a water system in for free today everybody would say yeah, sure bring it on. Or if they came in and said they would give it for some ungodly cheap price, “we would say yeah.”

It is a big financial commitment, Jones would concede-probably double the next largest project.