County Manager Chuck Wooten asked commissioners on Monday (Nov. 4) to make two decisions. One is small: do they want to help pay for a sewer line extension on Thomas Valley Road? The other is big picture: How do they feel about continuing to financially underwrite the Whittier wastewater treatment plant?
The Whittier plant is located on county-owned land; Whittier Sanitary District owns it; Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority is the operator. The plant, conceived by state and county officials as a $3.3 million project 13 years ago, has cost nearly $5 million in federal, state and local money.
Built to process 200,000 gallons per day of wastewater and permitted to treat 100,000, it currently handles a mere 5,000 to 6,000 gallons per day. Built on a break-even assumption of attracting 200 customers, it has 40. Built on the premise the plant would jumpstart development, it hasn’t.
The county is interested in the plant for two major reasons. Wastewater from Smokey Mountain Elementary School is treated there, and the plant – one day – might actually help stimulate economic growth along U.S. 441.
Before the plant was built, the school was struggling with a failing septic system, and there’s no good site for a new one.
“We have a significant interest in making sure sewer service is available to the school,” Wooten said.
But, funding the plant is costing the county about $100,000 a year on top of the $453,445 taxpayers already have spent.
Other financial players in the plant were: the Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly, $491,818; the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, $482,500; N.C. Rural Center, $3.2 million; Appalachian Regional Commission, $200,000; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $99,000; Cherokee Preservation Foundation, $45,000; Southwestern Commission, $1,000.
Only Jackson County is looking at continued funding, however. For three years the EBCI kicked-in a total of $300,000 ($100,000 a year), but won’t continue with the funding, Wooten said.
Commissioners indicated they might reach the same decision.
“This goes on forever,” Commissioner Doug Cody said of the yearly $100,000 payment. “At some point in time we’ll have $10 million in a system that’s not (operating) at capacity.”
Commissioner Vicki Greene, a retired assistant director of the Southwestern Commission, said she believed the original decision to build the plant wasn’t as much about need as “ego.” Greene declined to elaborate on the statement after the meeting.
Commissioners did not immediately reach a decision about funding the plant. They also didn’t decide whether to pay $34,180 in matching funds to secure $307,620 from the N.C. Rural Center to extend sewer lines to a 20-unit trailer park on Thomas Valley Road. Chairman Jack Debnam asked for more information from TWSA Director Dan Harbaugh and asked Wooten to schedule a work session on the matter.
In other business, commissioners:
• Learned Tracy Fitzmaurice will be the new Jackson County librarian, replacing Dottie Brunette, who retires at the end of December. Fitzmaurice starts Jan. 1. The assistant county librarian for Macon County is a 20-year employee of the Fontana Regional Library system, which serves Jackson, Macon and Swain. Fitzmaurice lives in Whittier and worked for the library here before transferring to Macon County.
• Learned that Smoky Mountain High School construction project won’t be completed until after Jan. 15 because of weather delays. The original target date for finishing the gym and fine arts center was Dec. 15.
• Unanimously agreed to endorse a newly consolidated Smoky Mountain Center board that will serve 23 counties. There has been unhappiness among county leaders region-wide about a lack of representation on the board. Jackson County commissioners recently voted to ask the General Assembly to reconsider the board’s makeup. In the meantime, however, they checked off on this formation, which leaves seven counties (not Jackson) without representation by a commissioner or other county official, county Attorney Jay Coward said. Coward also is the attorney for Smoky Mountain Center.
• Unanimously agreed to hire Heery Design for $34,335 to study courtroom space on the second floor of the Justice Center and make recommendations on how it could be more efficient and safer.
• Unanimously agreed to require the county’s 200 to 300 volunteers to undergo background checks.
• During the public comment portion, heard Marie Leatherwood express her displeasure over efforts to bring the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad back to Dillsboro.
• Heard Brenda Anders express support for bringing the train back to Dillsboro.
• Heard Carl Iobst’s ideas on how commissioners should handle various issues, including a warning that the new volunteer policy might infringe on citizens’ constitutional rights.
• Heard former Superintendent Frank Burrell express support for teachers in light of various cutbacks by the General Assembly, including the elimination of extra money for teachers who hold a master’s degree.