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With costs rising, Waynesville accepts wastewater treatment bid

Work should begin soon on Waynesville’s aging wastewater treatment plant. Haywood GIS photo Work should begin soon on Waynesville’s aging wastewater treatment plant. Haywood GIS photo

Now entering its seventh year, the process of replacing Waynesville’s outdated wastewater treatment plant has become a frustrating saga that only grows more agonizing — and expensive — the longer it continues.

With that in mind, aldermen last Tuesday awarded the construction contract for the project, amid concerns that the price could continue to rise if they wait any longer. 

“As everyone knows, prices tend to go up, and I’m not willing to gamble to see if they will actually come down. Prices for everything have continued to skyrocket including steel,” said Alderman Anthony Sutton. “I’m just excited that the project’s actually going to start moving forward and I’m looking forward to it being completed in about 18 months to 20 months.”

In late 2017, utility consulting firm UTEC told then-Mayor Gavin Brown and the Board of Aldermen that it would cost $5 or $6 million to extend the life of the failing facility by 5 to 10 years, or about $19 million for a completely new facility. 

At the time, staff sitting in the plant’s office had to physically check each stage of the treatment process to ensure it was working, because the plant, built in 1965, has an archaic electrical and control system. 

Some components of the plant are so old  that they can no longer be replaced with new parts, so town staff resorted to ordering used parts off the internet. Safety concerns like failing walls and railings were also an accident waiting to happen. 

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Later in 2017, the town asked another engineering firm  for a second opinion. That report, by McGill and Associates, largely backed up  the costs and options outlined in the UTEC report. 

Technically, the project was approved by the current board of aldermen, who were sworn in in December 2019, even though the previous board under Mayor Gavin Brown  had a heavy hand in its planning. 

The subsequent onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic clogged up the process; however, in a stroke of good fortune, the town had acquired a 26-year, zero-interest $19.4 million loan for the project from a state fund.  

This past January, the town subsequently encountered a stroke of bad fortune  — the price tag for the project came in at a shocking $28.4 million. 

In May, the state increased the amount of the $19 million interest-free loan by $5 million, but even as cost-saving alterations to the plant’s design were factored into the cost, prices continued to rise. 

On July 18 the lowest bidder, Harper Construction of Greenville, South Carolina, proposed a final price of $29.6 million, leaving the town with an unfunded construction cost of $5.1 million. 

During a July 26 Board of Aldermen meeting, Town Manager Rob Hites gave aldermen the choice of formally accepting the $29.6 million proposal or waiting around to see if prices might begin to fall. 

“Given the increasing cost of concrete and steel, we believe that it is prudent to award the contract to Harper Construction and get the project under contract and construction rather than rebidding the project,” Hites wrote in the agenda summary. Aldermen concurred. 

“Unfortunately, prices have gone up, but it is a necessary thing to move forward with,” Sutton said. “I believe that we’re on the right track now. The $5 million I think that we will get, we will be able to close that gap either with grants or with taking funds from other sources to make up that difference.”

The town did not qualify for an American Rescue Plan infrastructure grant due to “not being sufficiently distressed,” according to Hites, but it could reapply in the fall. 

Hites said he could foresee groundbreaking on the project as soon as November, and that the first payment on the project wouldn’t come due until December or January, giving the town time to draft an RFQ for lending institutions. 

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