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Board again confronted over utility non-user fee

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For second meeting in a row, Carroll County supervisors hear opposition to charging citizens for water service they don’t receive

By Ethan Campbell

HILLSVILLE – Citizens continued to demand answers from the Carroll County Board of Supervisors over collection of utility non-user fees during the July 9 meeting.

Following up on concerns stated during the previous meeting, citizen Ray Melton opened the discussion with comments about digging a water well when county water was previously unavailable, noting that the county has now begun running water lines on the street where he lives.

Melton asked the board why, according to current policies, he will begin receiving charges for water hookup even though he has no desire to do so. He said he chose to invest in a well rather than paying $2,300 to have the lines run into his development at the time of his decision in early 2016.

“Why are you charging people across the street, or people who don’t need the county water? I would think the money owed to county from back taxes would pay for that,” Melton suggested.

The board stated that it was currently in the process of collecting the total amount of delinquent taxes. “I know that this is being looked into, and I know there have been a lot of concerns about the non-user fees,” said Supervisors Chairman Robbie McCraw.

The county has contended that it agreed to the non-user fees as required by the federal agency that funded the water projects, USDA Rural Development. Essentially, the non-users pay a fee to help offset the cost of those who do agree to get county water, as explained by the board.

“Maybe that would take care of the people who have got good water, and don’t need the water, so they don’t have to hook on to it. Everybody needs good water,” concluded Melton, who confirmed he had gone as far to have his well water tested, and it was declared clean. “I really don’t need the water and I’d really like to see the money from taxes be put toward the fees for people who don’t need the water.”

McCraw thanked Melton for his input and stated that “the board will certainly take that into consideration.”

The next three scheduled speakers on the list; Judy Jones, Robert Patton, Johnny Dillon (who also spoke at the last meeting) deferred their speaking time to Benny Robinson of Pipers Gap.

Robinson Speaks for Citizens

“I ask your indulgence in a basic question: do you think that a non-user mandate — billing and prosecuting residents without any products or services being delivered — is right? A show of hands would be satisfactory.”

None of the board members raised their hands, and several members, including Rex Hill and Phillip McCraw, expressed responses acknowledging Robinson’s point.

“I believe it is wrong constitutionally, ethically and biblically. Moreover, I think it is an egregious overreach of government power,” Robinson said. “The non-user fee is nothing short of servitude. Residents of this county are being treated as subjects of the government. On that account, silence would be disloyalty.”

Robinson reminded the board that “you took an oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution. I doubt that you take that very lightly. That oath is as strong as it gets, [for] faithfully executing the duties of a public office.”

Robinson stated that he had been in contact with USDA regarding the non-user fees, mandatory hookups, loan guarantees and other related topics. “I have shared my inferences with some of you offline — most listen, some scoff, for whatever reason,” added Robinson.

Summarizing his findings, Robinson said, “the USDA does not make non-user fees nor mandatory hookups a mandate. The USDA has advised other laws prohibit them from doing that. The USDA does offer suggestions and other specifics to act as guarantees during the loan application process. It falls on local government to mandate ordinances to discharge declared guarantees in certain cases. The USDA does offer, in the letter of certification, certain endorsements that can be used as loan guarantees.”

Robinson concluded that “Carroll County made non-user fees mandatory, not the USDA.”

He continued with several practical examples from past utility protocols within the county, in which non-users weren’t charged fees.

“Moreover, and legally troublesome to me, is the non-consistency in the application of the law, especially in violation of the Virginia statutes addressing the fair and reasonableness language,” which Robinson said he brought up at a previous Public Service Authority meeting.

“Is the non-user fee revenue a make-or-break decider for the water and sewer projects?” he asked rhetorically. “I doubt it.”

Robinson said he had been advised that non-user fees might be revocable, but it requires action from the county. “The USDA has advised me that there are many tools in the bag to satisfy the requirement for loan guarantees — and that is their words, not mine,” Robinson specified.

“The USDA has offered that many counties in Southwest Virginia engage in different tactics” to satisfy low-interest loan requirements, rather than non-user fees and mandatory hookups.

He said the disagreements between board members and citizens is based on a misunderstanding of “ill-advised loan application language.”

The federal agency is getting the blame, he said, but “he USDA did not get Carroll County into this quagmire... This is a self-inflicted gunshot, propitiated by a lack of wisdom, knowledge and synergetic decision-making abilities. It’s time to stop the blame game.”

On behalf of the citizens of Carroll County, Robinson requested that the supervisors publicly file a motion to suspend the collection of non-user fees until it has time to work out the loan details to satisfy the USDA in some other way.

Chance For Reimbursement?

Robert Mabe, also present at the last meeting, recognized the board’s efforts to eliminate the non-user fee, but questioned the mention of a mandatory certified public accountant earlier in the meeting, regarding sewer services in Carroll County.

“I know you said you were going to make that mandatory, and I was just wondering if you’re flip flopping it from the water over the sewer.”

Mabe reiterated his “aggravation” for citizens who are in similar positions of paying for water they don’t receive. “Also, if you do go back and say that people don’t have to pay a non-user fee, I’m wondering how many of us will get [reimbursed]. Wonder if we’ll get any of our money back on that?”

The Board Responds

Pine Creek District Chair Bob Martin said he would “like to correct some things that you’re out in left field on, and I’m not going to accept some of the statements that were made,” directing his focus to Robinson.

“I can tell you that Mr. Travis Jackson [formerly of USDA Rural Development]” Martin began, but was interrupted by Robinson, who said “I know all about him.”

“Well you must not know everything, because your facts were wrong. Travis Jackson, the board of supervisors [members, who served on the PSA] bent over backwards to do everything we could to get numbers to sign up for water projects to start with. No hook-up fees. When we did all of that, we got a long-term loan for a rate of 0.5 percent interest, and part of those loans were grants.”

Martin recalled that Jackson told the board that it could no longer operate as it had “and you will be required that any time a line goes by a house or business or so forth it is mandatory that they hook up or they pay the minimum fee.

“Now I can tell you absolutely — one hand on my mother’s heart and the other on three Bibles — that’s what he said to the board. Six PSA members sat here and we were totally opposed to it. But we were totally opposed to paying 8 percent interest for money when we could get it at a 0.5 percent interest with grants... So, the board reluctantly adopted the word ‘mandatory.’ And I can tell you that six people on the board of supervisors were shown the door at the next election because of the word ‘mandatory,’” concluded Martin.

In his second correction, Martin pointed out that every tax-paying citizen in Carroll County pays the fee, contrary to Robinson’s claim that the fee is not uniformly executed throughout the county.

“If we want industry in this county, we have to invest in the infrastructure. The board took action on it, and it was because Travis Jackson told us we had to adopt the language, and it was made for the best interest of the citizens.”

Additional Information

When asked by citizen Johnny Dillon, Martin answered that he pays a non-user fee, as well as the taxes that are required for the portion of the PSA subsidized loans.

Robbie McCraw intervened, and attested to what Martin explained about the option that was given to the previous board. “I hope that everyone can understand that we have to have proper documentation before we can just do things.”

Vice Chairman Rex Hill consulted with County Attorney Steve Durbin during the meeting, who confirmed that no act could be repealed without first advertising a public hearing and later stated that he would be happy to review the loan documents to investigate the language further.

Hill expressed that he was adamant to put in motion the process so that the matter could at least be voted on, and that legal council could review the language in the loan guarantees.

He also suggested requesting a member of the USDA attend the public hearing for any further needed clarifications.

Hill further confirmed that of the 79 residents who pay the non-user fee; the county is collecting a total $30,000, which is only .07 percent of Carroll’s $42.6 million general operating budget, not including the school budget.

County Administrator Steve Truitt said, “it is not about the money at all. What I would respectfully suggest is to check and see about that language that gave rise to belief that we were required to have these non-connection fees [for] continuing to have the low interest loans... If the connection is still required, perhaps we can adjust the price of the connection fee, but still require it. If its not required, then you can make a decision to repeal it.”

Hill said that for future reference, extensive research will be sought before making any decisions based of unsubstantiated language, terms or proposals.

Each of the board members closed by thanking citizens for their input and raising awareness of problems within the county.

“I want the citizens of Carroll County to know that I am determined to get an answer from somewhere and someone on this. You all are due that answer, and you are due the proof. That’s all we can do as a board, is give you that due diligence,” said Chairman McCraw.

Addressing Melton’s earlier question, Durbin reported that the county has entered into payment plans with delinquent taxpayers, and that to date $100,000 has been collected, with $50,000 of that collection total already being dispersed back to the county. “We will be moving forward with advertisements for [delinquent property sales] as soon as titles are appropriately reviewed,” Durbin confirmed.