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Carroll connection fee raises question

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — County subsidized water connections for citizens will no longer be offered, starting with a possible project in western Carroll, Public Service Authority members decided at their Dec. 8 meeting.

Circumstances have changed since the days that Carroll County covered connection fees when citizens who signed up prior to project construction got free hook-ups, authority members discussed.

The connection fee matter came to a head at a community meeting in the Cliffview community, where 85 to 90 people showed up to express their interest in getting public water, said Ronald Newman, director of the PSA, at the authority's regular December meeting.

The people are extremely interested, he stressed. "If anyone has water over there, it's red. And a lot of people don't have water."

But it also brought up a question, he explained.

"One of the things that came up in filling out the user agreements, there is a listing there, a blank line for connection fees," he said.

The connection fee plus availability fee comes to $1,250.

"As the project is going through we wouldn't charge the availability fee, so the connection fee would be $750."

At the community meeting, officials advised those interested to fill in the $1,250, but realized later that the availability fee would not be required, Newman explained.

For past water projects, the county had covered the connection charges for citizens, he said.

The question for the authority is if they want to ask the board of supervisors to continue supplementing the connection fees, Newman said. "Or, from this point forward, do we want to collect connection fees from the customers?"

Chairman David Hutchins thought county officials sounded unprofessional at the community meeting when they couldn't immediately answer the question about the connection fees.

The reaction of the citizens there was that "no one else has ever paid it — why should we have to pay it?" Hutchins recalled.

There was no game plan on what to tell the citizens on the connection fee, the chairman noted.

It had been his impression that the Public Service Authority would charge the connection fee, Hutchins continued, because federal agency Rural Development — often a funding source for these kinds of projects — figures out what connection fees should bring in to offset the loan that the federal agency will provide for a utility project.

That's an amount that the authority has to come up with on its own, Newman agreed.

"This board either has to make a decision that we fund the projects that we say, or we have to each time go to the board of supervisors and ask them, 'Will you pay this $500,000?' or whatever it is for the connection fee," Hutchins summed up.

The authority needs a unified position on how to approach this, he added.

This same question will come up at future community meetings, Newman said.

When the people that control the purse strings change the rules, the Carroll Public Service Authority has to be able to adapt, reacted authority member Wes Hurst, at his final meeting representing Pine Creek on the PSA.

The connection fee is what it is, he said.

Authority Member Sam Dickson agreed, saying he didn't think that the county could afford to pay connection fees. That should be up to the user.

Hurst made a motion that collecting connection fees be the policy for future projects.

All authority members voted for the motion, after a second by Andy Jackson.

It doesn't matter how the authority handled connection fees in the past, Hutchins said. "I think our [legal] counsel so eloquently put it one day — the fact that you've done things wrong for years doesn't give you the right to continue doing it wrong." 

The authority is trying to make these projects work and getting water and sewer out to all the citizens it possibility can, Hutchins said. But there's an expense to doing so, and the taxpayers don't need to subsidize those costs.

The county is seeing more requests for water service than ever before, Hurst added.