Utility woes endanger NC’s small towns

By Colin Campbell

What would you do if your utility bill for water and sewer increased to $500 per month?

You’d probably end up selling your house at a loss and moving out of town. And while it might seem like a wild hypothetical, it’s a possibility in the tiny Columbus County town of Cerro Gordo, according to a study presented to state lawmakers last week.

A legislative committee and the state’s Division of Water Infrastructure are taking a close look at deteriorating water and sewer systems in North Carolina’s smallest communities. It’s not a sexy subject, but it’s a problem with major consequences for the state’s widening urban-rural divide.

It’s expensive to keep aging water and sewer lines running without service interruptions and environmental problems. Even in wealthier communities, we occasionally see gross government announcements about “wastewater” accidentally getting “discharged” into a creek or river. That’s bureaucrat-ese for “we dumped your sewage directly into the river, so maybe don’t go swimming.”

So many sewer systems had failures during and after Hurricane Florence that swimming is currently discouraged at North Carolina beaches. That’s the worst-case scenario of what can happen when sewer systems fail, and outside of major floods, the infrastructure problem is not that bad yet.

Which brings us back to the state’s study of Cerro Gordo and its neighbors along the South Carolina border. The town of about 200 people isn’t yet on the verge of raising utility bills to $500 a month, but the study found that such an increase could be required in future years to fund the cost of upgrades and maintenance. “Going at it alone really is just not an option,” said Kim Colson of the Division of Water Infrastructure.

His study recommends a partnership with neighboring towns and the larger nearby city of Lumberton – plus some grant money from the state – to keep the utilities functioning and affordable in Cerro Gordo.

Similar towns across the state are facing the same pressures – a declining population means fewer customers to fund the utility system, which leads to higher rates and job losses. Martin County leaders told lawmakers that utility debts are their “No. 1 issue” because the local mill cited high water rates when it shut down and eliminated 200 jobs.

Another problem is that some North Carolina counties have far too many small municipalities to run an efficient government. The state has more than 500 different cities and towns, of which about 40 have a population under 200. Once you’re that small, you’re more of a homeowners association than a town. And some small towns share a border, which means that a merger would eliminate duplication and benefit taxpayers.

It’s rare, however, to see towns merge or unincorporate. Local leaders don’t want to give up power, and residents fear losing their community identity.

The state treasurer’s office might have a solution. It floated a novel idea during the legislative meeting last week on troubled utility systems: What if small towns could outsource some taxing and government services to the county government or a larger neighbor – without giving up municipal status?

You’d still have a mayor and council and an extra tax to cover local needs like parks and sidewalks. But a bigger, better-equipped government entity could handle things water, sewer and law enforcement.

To save the small towns of rural North Carolina, affordable tax and utility rates will be essential to attracting businesses and new residents. It’ll take help from state leaders to kick in some grant funding and push for mergers and innovative ideas like the treasurer’s proposal.

Sure, water and sewer issues don’t typically excite politicians. But the only alternative is to let small towns wither and die, suffocating under the weight of their crumbling infrastructure.

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