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Wednesday, 27 October 2010 20:10

Whittier’s tangled web: sewer, water drama ratchets up … incrementally

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One of three board members overseeing the Whittier Sanitary District resigned this month, saying he could not “in good faith” continue to serve with a group not in compliance with state law.

“In addition, refusing to file the necessary Internal Revenue Service forms to declare wages and benefits taken from the citizens of Whittier is wrong,” John Boaze, the board member, wrote in his resignation letter.

Boaze has persistently carried on a one-man crusade to force the Whittier Sanitary District board to adhere to the same rules governing other public boards, which he says they’ve openly flouted. Open meetings, audits, public records — rules like that.

To date, those with authority to intervene haven’t seemed to be listening.

That situation, however, might have shifted, at least marginally, in the wake of Boaze’s resignation.

The N.C. Department of the Treasurer, in an earlier response to Boaze’s complaints, sent the Whittier Sanitary District a strongly worded letter advising it to comply with state accounting practices. Last week, the Treasurer’s Department confirmed it’s monitoring the situation.

“If it is determined that the district is not consistently making an effort to follow sound accounting practices or general statutes, division staff do have authority to control the financial operations of the district,” said Heather Strickland, deputy director of communications.

Jackson Manager Ken Westmoreland said he had consulted with Kevin King, his counterpart in Swain County, to see what — if anything — needed to take place.

“The Whittier Water and Sewer District is an independent legal entity and if organizational change is to come about, it will have to be from state pressure in some form,” Westmoreland said.

 

Why the complacency?

Boaze likely encountered entrenched bureaucratic hesitancy for this reason: it’s all so danged confusing, and very few Whittier residents actually rely on the system — particularly when compared to the inordinately large number of governmental entities playing starring roles in the small, unincorporated community’s serial water-and-sewer drama.

Once someone pulls the first thread on this ball of twine, no telling what might come unwound.

The Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t oversee sewer needs in the Whittier community – the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which operates in Jackson County, controls that service for Whittier.

The Whittier community encompasses land in both Jackson and Swain counties, meaning county commission boards in both have a hand in the district.

Though the Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day duties of handling the community’s sewer needs, the district does have responsibility for drumming-up customers for a new wastewater treatment plant, built to the tune of about $5 million. The board, to date, has failed to attract customers. The plant, which has the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day, currently serves 12 customers.

 

Not a happy camper

TWASA, forced kicking and screaming a few years ago to take control of the wastewater treatment plant, isn’t happy. When extra money being chipped in by Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians dries up, it appears the plant will be a massive drain on TWASA. Something akin to a fiscal sewer, as it were.

Jackson County is on its final year of a three-year agreement to provide $100,000 annually to TWASA. This $300,000 is on top of an initial $750,000 investment.

TWASA has encountered difficulty wresting the same amount in promised dollars out of the tribe, which has cited a different budget cycle than everyone else, among other reasons for the missing contributions. The check has been in the mail for about two years, with the first $100,000 payment promised to arrive any day. The tribe, like Jackson County, already paid about $750,000 to help build the plant.

Additionally, the Church of God added $500,000. Located near Whittier, the Church of God sports its own mini-version of the Methodist’s Lake Junaluska Assembly in Haywood County.

TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline says his board will decide at the beginning of the coming year whether to keep on keeping on when it comes to the wastewater plant. It might well decide, No thanks. In that case, who will operate it?

 

What the heck do they do, then?

Back to the Whittier Sanitary District board, and the reason it exists. The district’s board is tasked with overseeing the water system serving the Whittier community. There are about 100 customers relying on that system.

But, of course, it isn’t that simple. The Whittier Sanitary District board doesn’t actually maintain or operate the water system, either — that’s done by the Eastern Band, which has tracts of tribal land in and about the Whittier community. No one knows how much longer Eastern Band leaders will want to continue this task, which aids not only its neighbors but also those tribal members who live in the area.

Add one more item: Cline is on record saying TWASA does not want Whittier’s water system. The wastewater treatment plant is providing enough headaches, thank you very much.

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