Jackson County’s controversially high water and sewer fees could remain unchanged following implementation of a 2017 state law that was designed to ensure that these fees are calculated fairly and consistently. 

A routine board appointment turned contentious last week when Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley announced that he’d like to see someone else appointed to Commissioner David Nestler’s expiring term on the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Association Board.

Customers of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority will see their rates increase if the 2017-18 budget is adopted as proposed Monday, June 26.

An unusual number of building vacancies has peppered downtown Sylva this winter, and as town leaders have scratched their heads to figure out why, the fee structure of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority has come under fire as a possible culprit. And that’s led to a larger discussion about whether that fee structure is inhibiting the area’s overall economic development. 

Joe Ward’s term on the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority board came to an abrupt end last week when newly elected commissioner Mickey Luker made a motion to remove him during the Jackson County Commissioners’ Jan. 9 meeting. The move prevailed in a party-line vote, three Republicans against two Democrats.

jacksonFrom permit fees to lease agreements to equipment purchases, many costs accompany the launch of a new business. And while a rookie entrepreneur might not calculate water and sewer fees among them, in Jackson County businesses can find themselves forking over thousands of dollars to hook in.

Joe Cline, executive director of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, has suddenly voluntarily resigned without publicly specifying why.

TWSA board Chairman Randall Turpin said Cline tendered his resignation during a closed session. Turpin is temporarily overseeing the agency until a replacement is hired.

Efforts to reach Cline for comment were unsuccessful. Chairman Jack Debnam and other county leaders said they did not know why Cline had resigned, with Debnam describing those involved as “tight-lipped.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten told Jackson County commissioners this week that the TWSA board would be advertising for a replacement in trade magazines and similar outlets.

“They want to get someone on board as soon as possible,” Wooten said.

TWSA was created in 1992 when the Jackson County and the towns of Dillsboro, Sylva and Webster consolidated their water and wastewater utilities.

Last month, officials from the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority and the Town of Sylva clashed over who was responsible for fixing a clogged town sewer line.

The issue has since been resolved, with TWASA’s board voting 4-1 to reimburse Sylva for the cost of the repair after all. But the larger issue of what to do with “orphan” sewer lines that don’t appear on TWASA’s maps remains.

A committee representing all of the entities that formed the TWASA two decades ago has been convened to examine and interpret TWASA’s charter, according to Board Chairman Randall Turpin

At stake is whether TWASA is responsible for maintaining and repairing lines that weren’t on the original maps back when the newly formed private enterprise took over Sylva’s water and sewer system in the early ‘90s.

“How do we categorize the lines that weren’t identified at that time?” Turpin said.

TWASA’s has a policy not to repair small lines that didn’t appear on the original maps.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody doesn’t understand how such a policy could be in place.

“From my perspective, when TWASA was formed in 1992, they accepted the entire sewer system in existence at the time,” Moody said. “Therefore, I feel they have the responsibility to maintain it.”

But while TWASA’s charter document clearly gives the authority the responsibility to operate and maintain the entire system, it also gives it broad discretion to determine how and when to repair, upgrade and maintain the sewer lines.

The TWASA board felt it was important to pay Sylva back for the clog in order to move forward with a more productive discussion, according to TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline.

But they also wanted the municipalities to understand the planning process that goes into upgrades and maintenance of the system.

Turpin said TWASA relies on a regimented capital improvement plan that goes through its Water and Sewer Projects Committee, a system set up in the charter document.

Turpin said the authority has to be able to budget for maintenance and upgrades each year based on projected revenues. Spur of the moment repairs on unmapped lines present a problem.

“If there’s lines that are identified out there that we can get to the WASP committee and into the capital improvement plan, then that’s a positive outcome,” Turpin said.

TWASA already has a board made up of representatives from Jackson County, Dillsboro and Sylva. But Turpin wanted to get other people into the discussion, so he asked the municipalities to appoint members.

Jackson County commissioners refused to make an appointment, saying that County Chairman Brian McMahan could represent the county through the seat he already has on the TWASA board.

The committee will include Brad Moses, Larry Phillips, Chuck Wooten and Brian McMahan from the existing TWASA board; Maurice Moody and Chris Matheson from Sylva; and Mike Fitzgerald and Wade Wilson from Dillsboro. The subcommittee will meet for the first time at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 8, at TWASA’s main office.

Matheson said she was happy to serve on the committee, but she was still slightly confused about why she was needed.

“If going into the meeting, the idea is that the forming document is valid and binding and we just have to make sure everybody is on the same page, I’m fine with that,” Matheson said.

But she said Sylva’s board hasn’t changed its position that TWASA needs to repair broken lines when they cause problems.

Turpin said the meeting would provide a unique opportunity to talk through the issue of orphan lines and capital improvement planning.

“We have annual meetings with all the forming entities but this is the first time since I’ve been on the board that all of the entities have come together over a common concern,” Turpin said.

A Sylva sewer line that overflowed on a residential property last month has sparked a difference of opinion between the sewer authority and the town that may have larger implications for Jackson County.

According to Sylva officials, the owner of a Thomas Street property called the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority –– which operates water and sewer utilities for Sylva, Dillsboro, and Jackson County –– when a town line backed up and spilled raw sewage into his house. The owners were told that TWASA needed a letter from the town of Sylva stipulating the clogged line was part of its system before they could respond to the problem.

When the town furnished the letter, TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline responded with another letter, saying the authority’s policies don’t authorize fixing or maintaining sewer lines that aren’t on its sewer system maps.

The Sylva resident’s problem got fixed right away, but not by TWASA. Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said he considered the overflow a health risk and directed town employees to clean up the mess and send an invoice to TWASA.

But the dispute gets at the heart of TWASA’s relationship with the municipalities it serves. The authority was formed in 1992 as a private enterprise that would take over the management of water and sewer over from Jackson County and its municipalities.

TWASA’s refusal to respond to a problem on a four-inch lateral line that did not appear on its system maps may indicate that the authority will show resistance in the future to maintaining antiquated and undocumented segments of its system. Moody acknowledged that some portions of the town’s system are nearly 70 years old and not all of the lateral lines appear on system maps, but he rejected the conclusion that those facts exempt TWASA from maintaining them.

“From my perspective, when TWASA was formed in 1992, they accepted the entire sewer system in existence at the time,” Moody said. “Therefore, I feel they have the responsibility to maintain it.”

The sewer line clog on Thomas Street was a relatively easy fix. The town got Roto-Rooter to pump it clear for $350, but Moody felt strongly that TWASA’s refusal to respond set a dangerous precedent for the municipalities in its system.

“The amount of money was insignificant, but we have invoiced TWASA for that because it’s a matter of responsibility,” Moody said. “TWASA was formed to get the county and the municipalities out of the sewer business.”

Cline said he was merely following through with the authority’s policy not to spend money on sewer lines they regard as “private.”

“If it wasn’t a line recognized as part of the system at the time of the handover, then it was considered a private line,” Cline said.

Cline said he has not refused to pay for the cleanup of the overflow, but he wants to wait for the TWASA board to appoint a special committee to determine who is responsible.

“I’ve not refused to pay it at this point,” Cline said. “I want to see what the committee has worked out before I submit payment or not.”

Last week, Moody attended a TWASA board meeting to make his case that the authority was responsible for the maintenance of all of the town’s sewer lines as a result of its charter agreement. In response to his arguments, TWASA board chairman Randall Turpin said the board would appoint a committee to look into the matter and determine who is responsible for maintaining the lines. The committee will consist of two representatives from each municipality, two from the county, and two from the TWASA board.

“I just felt like we needed to bring all the entities together to discuss what they believed the intent of the original agreement was,” Turpin said.

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, who was TWASA’s planner when the authority was first formed, said resolving the issue might not be as simple as reading the transfer agreement inked in 1992.

“I think the language is pretty clear,” Massie said. “The problem is what the implications are. Apart from an initial cash contribution from Sylva, nobody has given TWASA any money to fix the problems they gave to TWASA when it was formed.”

Turpin said one of the main problems facing the authority is how to deal with “orphan” lines, like the one that overflowed in Sylva. The transfer agreement clearly states that TWASA is responsible for the entire water and sewer systems in the municipalities, but it also gives the authority broad discretion to determine how and when to maintain and improve its lines in conjunction with its capital improvement plan.

Turpin said he wants the committee members to come to the table representing the vested interests of the communities that elected them, so they can hash out a plan to move forward.

“Is there a way they can help identify projects that require expenditures, and then can we talk about where those funds will come from?” Turpin said.

Turpin’s plan to form a committee to examine TWASA’s charter agreement may not work. On Monday, the Jackson County board refused to appoint any members to the committee. Both Massie and Commissioner Joe Cowan said they wanted to know why TWASA’s board, which already includes representatives from the municipalities and the county, can’t resolve the issue on its own. Turpin said TWASA needs help from municipalities to determine what parts of the system should be prioritized in the capital improvement plan, because it cannot undertake a wholesale update of the system it inherited without raising rates unreasonably.

“TWASA’s primary revenue source comes from the rate payers, and the question is how much can the rate payers afford to pay to update an antiquated system?” Turpin said.

In the meantime, Cline said he would wait to pay Sylva back the $350 it paid to unclog the Thomas Street sewer.

As a task force continues to probe solutions to the drought-induced water shortage in Jackson County, one idea on the table is passing out low-flow showerheads and aerators for the public to install on their faucets.

Task Force Chairman Tom Massie said despite all the rain lately the region remains in a drought, which is threatening the water supply, particularly of wells. According to the Health Department, 25 percent of the new well permits issued last year were for people who had wells or springs run dry.

The logitics of passing out water-saving devices would still have to be worked out, said Massie. The devices only cost around $4, he said.

Massie said he does not know if the water-saving devices can be given to the public for free. They could possibly be distributed when someone obtains a building permit, he said.

Using cisterns and rain gardens to collect storm water to use for irrigation can also conserve water, he said.

Short-term solutions from the task force are expected to be ready in March and presented to the county commissioners and towns in the county in March, Massie said.

The task force was formed in the fall after several residents reported that their wells had run dry due to the drought. Some were forced to move out of their homes.

The task force is scheduled to meet again Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. in Jackson County Courthouse.

Task force members have learned about the scientific side of the water cycle in a presentation by task force member Dr. Mark Lord, who is the department head of the Hydrogeology, Geomorphology and Soils Department at Western Carolina University.

The average Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority residential customer uses an average of 216 gallons of water per day — far more than the national average of 70 gallons, TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline. That means a household of three is using about 20,000 gallons of water per month.

Cline said anyone with a well should be concerned about it running dry.

Massie stressed the importance of educating the public about the importance of saving water.

Cline said TWASA customers are “wasteful” with water.

Massie emphasized that TWASA customers represent a small number of the county’s overall population. But the large volume of water TWASA customers are using begs the question of how much those on wells are using.

It is unclear how public education could be achieved, but Massie said it could possibly be communicated through county public service announcements.

The task force is composed of a representative from the county and each town in Jackson County as well representatives from WCU, the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority and Southwestern Community College

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