All Franklin-SoCo wastewater options on table

Published 8:51 am Saturday, November 15, 2014

In what Chairman Dallas Jones considered the most import meeting of the year, the Franklin City Council and Southampton County Board of Supervisors met on Wednesday night for a joint session to hear the findings on the possibility of a wastewater facility shared between the two localities.

At the end of the day, the consultants are primarily worried about the concerns of the taxpayers, said McGuireWoods attorney Dale Mullen.

“The only thing all participants are concerned with is if it is determined to be more efficient and cost-effective for a county-city shared utility to provide water and wastewater services, what is the most responsible and equitable government structure?” Mullen said.

“The primary consideration is asking, ‘What is in the best interest of the county taxpayer? What is in the best interest of the city taxpayer?’,” he continued. “Every conversation we have had revolves around those two considerations.”

Timmons Group, along with subcontractors Davenport & Company and McGuireWoods Consulting, presented some preliminary study results and outlined in greater detail some of the options. Also present were guests from the Department of Housing and Community Development, which offered the grant to pay for the study.

Joe Hines, a consultant for Timmons Group, started off the meeting by saying that they were about 50 percent complete and they have a good idea for where they are going. Comparing it to a term paper, however, he said the thesis could end up changing before they get to late January or February, when the study is projected to be complete.

Regional cooperation, Hines said, is still a good thing, but it was important to decide how they want to approach it.

“If you are willing to work together, there are usually two to three solutions for every problem,” he said. “If you don’t want to work together, there are usually about 100 ways to kill a project. You have to decide.”

Some of the engineering considerations include doing nothing and figuring out what that could cost taxpayers down the road. Hines said it only is a matter of when Franklin would have to spend more money on its wastewater treatment plant, not if. Permits could also be a concern.

There is the option of the phased approach, and there are multiple ways to do that. The phased approach would continue to operate the Franklin plant on a limited basis, and send a portion of the waste to Southampton.

The other approach is to send all of it to Southampton and shut down the Franklin plant all together.

Hines said that with this approach, the Southampton plant would have to be upgraded, though it could be done in phases and efficiency savings could make up for the upgrades. That cost would likely be less than building a new Franklin plant, which is another option, and City Manager Randy Martin has said in the past that cost could be in the range of $30 million.

Courtney Rogers, senior vice president of Davenport, said his company is looking into the same options, but his considerations concern more so what the user rates would be under each option. They’d get at that after considering what the total cost would be using each option.

Currently, Rogers said, Franklin last updated its rates in 2008, while Southampton did so in 2013. For 5,000 gallons of water usage, a Franklin customer will pay $63.33 per month, while a Southampton customer pays $72 a month.

Looking into the government aspect was Dale Mullen, an attorney with McGuireWoods. Mullen said that in his experience, he believes two solid business partners working together can accomplish more than what would have been possible individually. So, he was happy to see the two entities considering this.

“It is always great to see two localities at least explore the opportunity to work together,” he said.

Another major consideration beyond cost to the taxpayers is also providing the best service.

“People like predictability,” Mullen said. “That’s not just in cost, but also in efficiency of the system.”

It’s also important that both city and county users get the same level of customer service.

If integration happens, in whatever way that is accomplished, Mullen said, his recommendation would likely be to set up a Public Service Authority.

By Virginia code, a PSA can issue its own debt and carry out every other responsibility that can be imagined that a utility service might need.

The Authority would have six or eight members, with equal representation from both Franklin and Southampton County. It can be set up where the authority board also consists of members of each locality’s officials, it can be all citizen based, or it can be a balance between the two options.

“If you do not feel like you are already going to enough meetings, a council member or supervisor could always appoint themselves to the board,” Mullen said. “That gives you the appearance of autonomy, but in reality, it wouldn’t be.”

More frequently, there is a liaison from each locality and the other spots are made up by citizens.

Mullen said there was an option to set up a tie-breaking mechanism, but for this mode of government, he found it to be an advantage for change to be hard to achieve.

“Sometimes a stalemate works, so that only the desires that favor both business partners would move forward,” he said. “This way, the only way anything will pass is if you have at least one member from the other side voting in favor of an issue.”

Mullen said members could either be appointed or elected, whatever the preference is by the governing bodies.

The primary task for the authority would be setting rates, applying for grants or potentially borrowing money for upgrades. The authority would not be able to raise the tax rates. Though Rogers added that they could make requests of Franklin or Southampton County, which could transfer funds that might have to be achieved via a tax increase.

Supervisor Ronald “Ronnie” West, vice chair, also asked about flood zones and if the federal government looked favorably upon localities working together.

Hines said that with two flood events in the past 20 years in Franklin, flooding is being considered as a statistical probability which will also impact cost in any consideration where the Franklin plant is being kept open.

Grants are often given priority to localities practicing regional cooperation, Hines said. Some grants even have it written into the language that it gives favorable odds to two localities in a joint venture ship.

Looking at the scope, Martin also pointed out that the cheapest option of connecting the lines through a series of pump stations in the area near Hunterdale may not be the best option. The best option might be to set up a big pump at the Franklin wastewater treatment plant, and use the U.S. 58 corridor to connect the two plants via a force main.

An added benefit to that option, Martin said, would be that it would help with economic development in the General Thomas Highway and Pretlow area industrial parks.

This option would be more expensive than Martin originally estimated, but it could be the most efficient and also good for future economic development opportunities.

The next joint meeting will be in either late January or early February, and it will be when the contractors of the study present the final draft to both parties. A draft has to be completed by mid-December, and the final study has to be done by mid-January.

Staff Writer Andrew Lind contributed to this report.