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Wednesday, 17 March 2010 18:34

Sewer dispute could help redefine TWASA’s mission

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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.

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