What does the study of the wastewater system mean to me?

Published 11:22 am Saturday, September 28, 2013

by Southampton County Administrator Michael W. Johnson, Franklin City Manager R. Randy Martin and FSEDI President Amanda C. Jarratt

This is a question that many have likely posed in recent weeks as community meetings have been held in both the City of Franklin and Southampton County regarding the recent award of a Planning Grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development to study the potential of both localities collaborating on the treatment of wastewater.

First of all it’s about job creation. In order to attract new private investment into the Franklin Southampton community and provide people of all income levels an opportunity for employment and to build assets, we must maximize the limited resources we have. The availability of water and wastewater utilities are critical components of most economic development projects. Collaboration opens the door for development in Pretlow Industrial Park, which currently has limitations in both capacity and the type of wastewater discharge that could be accepted within the City. These current limitations restrict the types of industries that can be recruited to locate within Pretlow Park without significant increased capital expense. There is additional property within Southampton County in the long established revenue sharing area, which would generate tax revenue for both communities designated for future industrial development. Currently, this property cannot feasibly be served by utilities limiting its marketability. If even a partial collaboration could be implemented to create capacity within the City of Franklin’s system, utilities could be extended from the City to the County opening up new economic development opportunities in key target areas; increasing the tax base for the entire Franklin-Southampton community.

Secondly, the study is about potential tax relief now and in the future for residents of both the City of Franklin and Southampton County. Southampton County currently subsidizes its water and sewer operations with more than $2.6 million annually from its General Fund. Added customers will reduce this subsidy, allowing those funds to be allocated to other necessary services within the County. The City of Franklin within a few short years will be facing immense capital expenditures when its WWTP reaches plant capacity. With the impact of enhanced environmental regulatory requirements and to accommodate sufficient future growth capacity to justify the expense, the cost of future necessary upgrades to the City treatment system is estimated at $10-$12 per gallon of treated wastewater equating to tens of millions of dollars that would have to be absorbed through a combination of rates and taxes.

Finally, future expansion of the City’s WWTP within the flood plain on the banks of the Blackwater River will have substantial added costs in order to mitigate the threat of future flooding events as experienced in 1999 and 2006.

The principle is simple. The City needs capacity to avoid a tremendous capital expenditure within the next five to seven years and the County needs customers. On the surface it would appear that it is more cost effective for both localities to operate and maintain one treatment plant rather than two and a confirmation of this thought is exactly why the concept will be studied through the Planning Grant.

Who will manage and oversee the process?

As with all grant opportunities through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, a Management Team must be appointed to oversee and manage the study. This management team will include a broad cross section of stakeholders including public employees from both communities, and Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. In addition, one elected official and two citizen representatives from each community will be appointed to guide the process. Those selected to represent Southampton County are Bruce Phillips from the Board of Supervisors and Randolph Cook and Nick Kitchen as Citizen Representatives. Those representing the City of Franklin include Councilman Benny Burgess as well as David Crear and Tom Jones as citizen representatives.

A request for proposals soliciting engineering firms to conduct the study will be issued and it is anticipated that the study will take up to six to nine months to complete.

Questions that the Management Team will attempt to answer through the study include the following:

Does it make sense to consolidate systems? What are the anticipated costs for any capital improvements required to interconnect the systems? How do the anticipated costs for the collaboration compare to the cost of the continued independent operation of both systems? What is the financial impact to the utility customers in both localities and what subsidies would be required to make the collaboration work? Would service to either customer base be negatively impacted? If the study finds that the collaboration is feasible and makes sense, then what are the next steps necessary to move ahead? What will the structure of this collaboration be and who will oversee the operations over the long term?

These are all questions that the public at large has about the concept and questions that both communities are looking to answer. These questions and more are anticipated to be answered as a result of the study giving all clear guidance on what the appropriate next steps will be. As should be obvious, at this point there are more questions than answers. In any event, both communities have a responsibility to determine if cost savings and efficiencies can be obtained through collaboration resulting in a “win-win” outcome for the citizens of both the City and County.

Stay tuned to future community meetings and updates on the study as it moves forward. Your participation, thoughts, and feedback are welcomed.

Michael W. Johnson
Southampton County Administrator

R. Randy Martin
Franklin City Manager

Amanda C. Jarratt
President & CEO
Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc.