Talks take in annexation topics

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Circumstances have changed since the last time Hillsville and Carroll County sat down to talk about water and sewer billing disagreements.

For one, Carroll County has made strides to be able to provide its own water and sewer service to the industrial park near Interstate 77 and U.S. 58 — a matter from which part of the billing disagreements stemmed.

Still up in the air is the possibility of annexation and changes in distribution of tax revenue from commercial businesses at the interchange. The monies are being split by Carroll and Hillsville.

Representatives from the county and town forged that agreement back in the 1990s, but its moratorium on town annexation will expire by 2011.

County officials like Administrator Gary Larrowe would like to see that agreement continued and see both parties avoid any annexation lawsuit.

“We’ve already got something in place and it seems very reasonable to me,” Larrowe said. “Hillsville has things to offer the community. We need to be pulling in the same direction.”

But if the town annexed to the interstate area, Hillsville would get all the meals and lodging taxes from motels and restaurants there.

As long as Hillsville does not go through with annexation, the revenue-sharing deal stays in effect.

Meanwhile, Hillsville’s claim for $156,199 remains in place to provide water and sewer services to Carroll’s industrial park, and sewer service to county-owned buildings.

Carroll answered with a claim of its own, for $426,261, saying that Hillsville overbilled for services by including in its calculations items that had nothing to do with water production.

Items included depreciation and salaries for personnel other than those in the water and sewer department.

Local government officials tried to work out an agreement that would have meant greater cooperation on utility services — chiefly, the county sending its wastewater from the Woodlawn sewer system to Hillsville to treat.

But the agreement did not pass muster with Rural Development, which had provided loans and grants for the Woodlawn system. That gave the federal agency veto authority and the feds used it to scuttle the long-sought deal.

The revised Woodlawn sewer project has a groundbreaking scheduled for Nov. 17, and it should come online in 2009.

Work continues to get the regional water system, based in Austinville, online, which will supply service to Exit 19, and with build-outs continuing to other areas of Carroll.

Both parties should avoid the legal fees and animosities by dropping the lawsuit, Larrowe feels. That would be the honorable thing.

“If we’re going to fight a battle, it shouldn’t be amongst our friends,” he said.

Town officials are heartened that they’ve been able to meet and talk with representatives of the Carroll Board of Supervisors, Town Manager Larry South said. But after other agreements between the two governments fell through, he’s taking a cautious view.

“I’ve been optimistic before that we had agreements ... and somehow they fell through,” he recalled.

Every day that passes without an agreement lessens the urgency for town officials in this matter, South added. It’s just months until the restriction against town annexation will expire.

Hillsville has not made any efforts to study the costs of taking in or providing services to the area around the interstate, and town officials would undertake such a review to find out if annexation would make economic sense, he said.

The county and the town have many opportunities to work together, Larrowe and South had said. Indeed, both participated in providing incentives to bring manufacturer Ameripumps and its jobs here.

“Hopefully, we can come to terms and get this issue behind us,” South said. “It’s gone on way too long.”

Larrowe would like to see a more congenial relationship between the two entities.

It’s like when he heard that the town needed another tractor to pull hayrides for Safe Halloween, he recalled. Larrowe’s reaction was, sure, and do they need a driver, too?

“I feel confident something can be worked out,” the county administrator said. “When you have two groups of reasonable people, there’s a solution.”