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Column: Third-world conditions likely if NC doesn’t tackle rural utility crisis

by Colin Campbell

The biggest challenge facing some North Carolina small towns isn’t declining population or shuttered businesses. The problem sits underground in the form of crumbling, leaky pipes, or a dysfunctional sewage treatment plant tucked away in a far corner of town.

Aging utility infrastructure is a problem everywhere, but it’s a crisis in small, rural towns that have no way to fund the necessary repairs. Some would have to charge upwards of $200 per month on utility bills to raise enough money.

That means a serious threat to a town’s survival. In Nash County, the town of Bailey should be a perfect candidate for suburban growth: It’s got a picturesque historic downtown, and it sits on a major freeway that leads to Raleigh in 30 minutes and Wilson in 20.

But it’s impossible to build a new subdivision there, and you can’t even build a gas station by the freeway to add a few jobs and attract travelers. That’s because state regulators have determined that the town’s sewer system can’t safely serve any additional customers without major upgrades, so Bailey has been on the state’s sewer moratorium list since 2003 – effectively banning new construction.

The longstanding sewer issue has caused Bailey’s population to plummet from 670 in 2000 to 561 in 2018. Meanwhile, the neighboring town of Sims – just one exit down the highway – has seen its population spike from 128 in 2000 to 284 in 2018.

If state leaders are serious about addressing North Carolina’s urban-rural divide, Bailey is a prime candidate for assistance. But the utility infrastructure issue has only recently become a priority for state leaders.

Up until now, getting a big state grant to fix a troubled local utility required political muscle: Your state legislator needed the clout to insert pet projects into the state budget.

But this year, two influential legislators want to tackle the issue through a competitive grant fund. Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, and Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, want to create a new “viable utility reserve” to fund the most-needed utility fixes. The program would emphasize regional water and sewer systems, helping incentivize larger towns and cities to partner with their smaller neighbors and reduce operating costs.

It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s already getting scaled back as it moves through the legislative process. The original bill called for a $1 monthly surcharge on public water and sewer bills across the state to fund the grants, but that idea has been abandoned over opposition to fee increases and revenue transfers from urban to rural areas.

Newton estimates the fee would have generated around $20 million to $30 million annually; he’s now pushing instead for the fund to get $17.5 million over two years in the state budget. “Clearly, the money is insufficient for the need, but even the fee would have been insufficient until funds build up,” McGrady said.

Even without a utility bill fee, you’d think a state that currently boasts a $643 million surplus could come up with more money for such a pressing problem. State leaders must do more before towns reach the worst-case scenario for failing utilities.

The town of Love Valley in Iredell County is already there. Thanks to ancient pipes that leak sewage into a nearby river, state regulators have shut down the town’s utility system entirely, according to a recent report by Tim Boyum of Spectrum News.

Boyum spoke to residents who have been forced out of their homes in the quirky cowboy-themed town because they no longer have running water and flush toilets. Unsightly Porta Potties now line Love Valley’s Wild West-style Main Street.

This is North Carolina, not some third-world country, and our residents deserve better. State lawmakers must take the utility infrastructure problem seriously, so that no one gets forced out of their home, and no community is banned from growing.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.



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