Public meetings begin over regional wastewater

Published 11:46 am Friday, September 20, 2013

FRANKLIN—The City of Franklin and Southampton County are proceeding into the public meeting stage of a feasibility study for collaborating with wastewater treatment.

The entities hosted two meetings this past week, each designed to inform citizens about the project, which many are calling historic.

“Franklin and Southampton County have collaborated on a smaller scale for many years in a number of different areas,” County Administrator Mike Johnson said. “But this project will set the stage for unprecedented financial rewards for both communities. This is as big as it gets.”

The city and county submitted a letter of interest to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development with regard to sharing services in public utilities in January. In May, the communities submitted a planning grant application. In July, the VDHCD indicated they would hold $3,000 for the city and county to begin the planning grant process.

These funds are held for public meetings for the citizens of both localities to let them learn about the planning grant that is sought to study shared utility services; creating a management team from key stakeholders; the management team would draft a Request for Proposal seeking a consultant to study the possibility of shared utility services.

Once all of those tasks are accomplished, the VDHCD has earmarked $40,000 in state funds for the feasibility study.

The county cut the ribbon on its approximately $15.5 million plant in 2010. The plant has the potential to process 1.25 million gallons of wastewater each day, with the potential to upgrade to 2.5 million gallons per day. Currently, the flow is .25 million gallons per day.

The plant has a budget of $3.75 million annually, with the county subsidizing $2.6 million annually through taxes.

The city’s plant was built in the 1950s, and was last upgraded in 1983, with some equipment being replaced following the floods of 1999 and was upgraded in 2006, but sustained no damage due to Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

The plant has approximately 600,000 gallons of flow left, and City Manager Randy Martin said that could go fast.

“Back before the bottom fell out on the economy, there were serious talks of adding subdivisions to Franklin,” Martin said. “The economy is starting to come back, and if there is any additional residential flow, it could take up several hundred thousand gallons of flow.

“We have potential industrial plants coming, and one user can take up 200,000 gallons of flow, and that’s not talking about a large industry. It could go quickly.”

As seen in 1999 and 2006, the plant is also vulnerable to floods, which Martin said not only damages the plant, but also causes a host of environmental problems to the Blackwater River ecosystem, as raw sewage would be going straight into the river.

The plant is also not as modern as Southampton’s, meaning the waste does not go through a tertiary system, which is a more environmentally friendly system.

To build a new plant, Martin said, could cost up to $30 million and take more than 10 years to have a plant planned out, completed and running.

In working together on this utility service, Southampton County will be able to provide tax relief to its citizens, and Franklin will not have to build a new plant. It also helps both entities attract industry, as they will have the wastewater capacity to support it.

“If we’re going to work together in attracting new private investment and jobs in the city and county, it’s essential for us to maximize the limited resources that we have,” said Johnson. “Development of water and sewer infrastructure is capital intensive, and by working together, we can limit the financial burden on citizens of both communities.”

The feasibility study would consist of a review of physical inventory of assets, how to interconnect, cost to interconnect, how much money each locality could save and compare interconnection with what business would be like if there had been no collaboration. The next part would be a financial study, which would consider the financial impact for taxpayers. The study would also consider impact on serving citizens, how to implement the system and governance of the shared facility.

Amanda Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., said the study has the potential to open up different avenues to increase the market, which is valuable to creating jobs.

“It allows us to market our area in a much more efficient fashion,” Jarrett said. “The collaboration will generate savings and open up areas that are not served by utilities.”

Martin said this is not an all or nothing proposition.

“It can be done in phases over time,” he said. “We could start with just rerouting the portion that is close, and that would free up 500,000 gallons rather quickly.”

Martin said the transition of all of Franklin’s flow could take many years.

“We need additional flow in the not too distant future, and we’ve got to have a plan,” he said. “It makes good business sense to work together with the county to help our mutual needs. It is really a win-win situation.”