Showing posts with label water. Show all posts
Showing posts with label water. Show all posts

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Water For Wal Mart

At last week's Town Board meeting, Oriental Town Manager Wyatt Cutler claimed that selling Town water to customers outside the Town (i.e. Wal-Mart) is good, because we make money for the Town. Reference was also made to the fact that the Town agreed to provide water to the Dollar General store, which is also out of Town. Commissioner Venturi pushed the same line.

It is true that the Town has been providing water to Dollar General since they opened.

It is not true that the Town made money from providing water.

It's like the old joke: "we lose money on every sale, but make up for it in volume."

In fact, during the decade from 2001 to 2011, the General Fund (Oriental taxpayers) was subsidizing the Water Fund (water users, including Dollar General) an average of from $35,000 to $50,000 a year.

It could happen again if the Town isn't careful to keep rates high enough to cover ALL of the expenses of operating the water plant, including depreciation.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Oriental, NC Water Board

Yesterday (Friday, August 16), the Oriental Town Board held a special meeting to discuss the state of the Town's water treatment plant and the related issue of whether to adopt an ordinance officially establishing a town water board.

One of the mysteries to me is why that should even be at issue. The state of the Town's water treatment plant is atrocious, as a number of us learned during an official tour of the plant last May 21st. There can be no doubt that the Town Board of Commissioners needs to receive independent advice on the needs of the plant. All other standing advisory boards are established by ordinance. We know how many members there are, what qualifications are sought, how long the terms of appointment, what are the functions and responsibilities of the board. Why not do the same with the Water Board?

When I sought that information five years ago, I found no ordinance at all. Only rumors that such a board once existed. That is not acceptable.

At Friday's meeting, Captain Jim Barton, United States Navy, (retired) and Oriental resident, provided a well-organized, lucid presentation on what our water plant requires and what it doesn't have. He made it abundantly clear that the plant is not operating the way it was designed, and that these deficiencies have existed for years.

Maintaining water chemistry requirements for the Town's system presented no mysteries to someone who has been responsible for boiler water chemistry of a 1200 psi steam plant. Deviations from those requirements can cause catastrophic boiler failures and loss of life. Compared to that, the challenges of operating the Town's water plant are comparatively small, but nevertheless important.

The Town Board has had in its hands for months an ordinance drafted by Commissioner Summers that would have formalized an advisory board. Some board members argued that the ordinance wasn't perfect, and board member Venturi insisted that the Town Board should meet with the apparently nonexistent water board to discuss the ordinance.

At this stage, it appears that Captain Barton will be an essential member of any Water Board that is established.

Barton explained that under present Town Manager Wyatt Cutler, improvements have already been made. Other planned near term improvements include replacing inoperative control panels with more modern and reliable equipment, as well as replacing and repairing failed control valves.

These failures would not, in my view, have happened with a proper valve maintenance program and an effective Operation and Maintenance manual.

At Friday's  meeting, the Town Board appointed a drafting committee of perhaps a half dozen members.

Good way to get nothing done.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Oriental Town Board Meeting June 4, 2013

Interesting meeting at Town Hall tonight. Much talk about the water board. If there is such a thing.

I have written about what it needs to do. Just search for "water board." Check it out.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Global Water Shortage?

The past couple of weeks, one of the topics at Oriental Town Hall has been budgeting and planning the management of the Town's water system. Last Friday, at one point, Town commissioners gathered around the table redesigning the water treatment plant.

It might be better to turn that task over to experts.

In the meantime, we need to deal with the reality facing mankind: we are running out of potable water and water for irrigation. Here's the bad news.

A little over two centuries ago, economist Robert Malthus examined the problem of constant population growth and limited resources. He is best remembered from pointing out that population grows geometrically, while food production grows arithmetically. In the intervening two centuries, food production has increased at a more rapid rate than Malthus predicted, especially in the 20th Century.

Nevertheless, other factors of production essential to population growth may assume a limiting function.

It looks like water may soon play that role.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Oriental Water Treatment Plant

Yesterday morning the Town Board and a number of citizens visited Oriental's water treatment plant. The Town Manager gave a briefing on new regulatory requirements including increased testing.

The tour began with an outside tour and explanation of the major components of the plant. Many questions were raised both by the commissioners and the citizens attending.

Following the outside briefing, attendees went inside the water treatment plant to view its condition and to receive information on maintenance and repair that needs to be accomplished.

First impressions: too much deferred maintenance.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Throwing Eastern North Carolina Under The Bus?

Today's article in the News and Observer about possible tolls on I-95 should be a wake-up call. Tolls for Pamlico County commuters may be just the beginning.

Is there anyone out there who thinks tolls on I-95 won't shift traffic across North Carolina further inland? Say, through Raleigh and Charlotte?

Will that be good for business in Eastern North Carolina? Not likely.

I know that I-95 is projected to become congested along its entire link by 2030. But toll booths are likely to increase, rather than alleviate, congestion.

Contributing to the problem is that both the US Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Department of transportation are really just the same old highway departments of old. They love pouring concrete and building bridges. They don't yet (and may never) address transportation as a system. The function of the system is to move goods and people from where they are to where they need to be.

Roads and highways aren't the only way to move people and goods around. Rail, for example, is much more energy efficient than trucking. Most energy efficient of all is water transport. We have lots of water here in Eastern North Carolina. Here's a plan to use it to alleviate congestion on I-95.

Let's have no tolls on any North Carolina highways.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Water and Taxes

Two years ago, I explained that the Town of Oriental had a problem with water rates. I pointed out, as I had at Town Board meetings, that the Town had been losing money on water. Not only that, the water system had been subsidized by the general taxpayers.

This meant, among other things, that taxpayers had paid for reduced water rates for the Town's biggest water users.

Our interim town manager has recently done a more thorough examination of costs properly chargeable to the water system. His review revealed that the general taxpayer's subsidy to the water system was even higher than I had thought.

An inevitable consequence of this subsidy is that it reduced tax resources available for other town priorities. Many times over the past few years, Board members have avoided expenditures for projects that residents desired, claiming we don't have the resources. The money ($150 - $250 thousand) unknowingly spent over the past decade subsidizing the water system could have gone a long way toward meeting those needs.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oriental Commissioners Approve Minutes

Normally that wouldn't be a big deal. Still, since the new board was sworn in December 1 of last year, this is the first time the commissioners unanimously approved a set of minutes.

Turning to substantive business the commissioners adopted a Special Project Ordinance for the refurbished fishing reef, as well as a budget amendment to establish transparency concerning where the money came from and how it is spent. This should have been done in 2007 when the project began. With the Special Project Ordinance, supporters of the reef project can continue to contribute indefinitely. There will be no time limit on when the funds must be spent. The project does not include any Oriental tax funds. One effect is that the approximately $20,000 collected to date for the project will no longer be counted as part of the town's unrestricted fund balance. It never should have been so counted, in any event.

In other business, the Board filled two of the three vacant slots on the town's Tourism Board, appointing Missy Baskervill, a resident of Arapahoe, and Grace Evans, a resident of Oriental who has long been active in promoting the town. The tourism board's substantial budget comes from the town's occupancy tax, the only tax the town collects for itself.

In addition to the vacancy on the tourism board, there is a vacancy on the planning board and three vacancies on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee. Though it was not on tonight's agenda, Commissioner Warren Johnson has initiated efforts to reactivate the town's Water Board, hopefully in time for the visit by the Rural Water Center, who will begin an audit of our system March 17.

Notwithstanding these longstanding board vacancies, the commissioners discussed requests from the Planning Board and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee to establish additional advisory committees. More openings for volunteers.

After agreeing to proclamations for Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week and Arbor Day, the Board went into closed session to discuss a personnel matter. When they returned to open session, they continued tonight's meeting until March 8 at 4:00, probably to return to closed session.

Remember Arbor Day! March 20 at 9:30 a.m. at Lupton Park. Agenda: replace the destroyed magnolia.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Utility Billing Information as Public Record

North Carolina General Statutes section 132-1.1(c) explicitly provides that “billing information compiled and maintained by a city or county or other public entity providing utility services in connection with the ownership or operation of a public enterprise, excluding airports, is not a public record as defined in G.S. 132-1.”

Does this mean the city may not disclose billing information? Not exactly, according to a recent post by Kara Millonzi of the School of Government on the NC Local Government Law blog. She postulates a number of scenarios under which the disclosure of billing information may be legal under G.S. 132-1.1(c). She suggests, however, that the decision to make such a disclosure should be pursuant to a decision made by the governing board, and the municipality should apply any governing board directive consistently.

In any event, G.S. 132-1.10 prohibits a local government or public authority from intentionally communicating or otherwise making available to the general public certain identifying information, including Social Security or employer taxpayer identification numbers; driver’s license, state identification card, or passport numbers; checking or savings account numbers; credit or debit card numbers; digital signatures; personal identification code numbers; biometric data (such as eye scans, voice scans, and DNA); fingerprints; or passwords. Furthermore, G.S. 132-1.2(2) prohibits a local unit or authority from revealing an account number used for electronic payment (defined as payment by charge card, credit card, debit card, or by electronic funds transfer).

Bottom line: the town does not have to disclose any of this information to the public. It may under certain circumstances, but better be very careful.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Water Board finally Meets

The most positive development to come out of the January meeting of Oriental's Town Board is that the water board has finally been convened. See my earlier thoughts on this subject.

Commissioner Johnson is apparently determined to establish terms of reference for the water board similar to those governing other advisory boards. This will be a good thing.

I hope the water board is able to investigate where the town's missing water is going. I have known about the unexplained disappearance of water for some time. Heidi Artley told me about the problem and offered a few possible explanations, each of which calls for investigation. I'm not convinced that backwashing pipes and dumping tanks provides an adequate explanation.

With respect to dumping tanks, I was repeatedly told by the previous town manager that the water in the towers is just there for storage and is not, by design, included in the circulation. Therefore the water loses its treatment and has to be dumped after awhile. I recently learned from the County's engineer that when this happens, as in the case of the County's Kershaw Road tank, it indicates an imbalance in the system. They plan to correct the Kershaw Road problem when they install the new water tank at Arapaho. Maybe we should have a new engineer check out our system.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Audit: Scheduled Presentation

Oriental's new auditor will present the audit to the Town Board at Tuesday's public meeting.

This appears to be the only important or significant topic on Tuesday's agenda. It may seem like a boring subject, but represents an opportunity for the public to hear a fresh analysis of the town's financial management strengths and weaknesses. A previous post offers my own assessment of the twenty-three items to which our auditor called particular attention.

One thing to bear in mind is that the auditing contract is not just a bilateral agreement between the town and the auditor. The North Carolina Local Government Commission (LGC) is also a party, in that the contract must be submitted to the LGC Secretary for approval. The LGC must also approve the audit, including completion of required corrections, before they will approve final invoices for payment. LGC provides a form for the contract and prescribes procedures for the audit.

This year, the LGC sent the Town of Oriental at least three letters complaining about the audit by Seiler, Zachman & Associates, PA for fiscal year ended June 30, 2008. Two of those letters complained the report was late and asked for the town's plan to correct this. The third letter identified five deficiencies requiring correction, including two items that had to be corrected before LGC would approve the final invoice. Of the five items, two related to the Water Fund.

In addition, almost four months after the end of the fiscal year, the auditing firm forwarded to the Town of Oriental five pages of "Adjusting Journal Entries." The adjustments included a credit for $3,503.48 annotated "Adjust cash to reconciled balance." Apparently this was to account for an unexplained discrepancy in cash on hand as of the date of the audit.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Water Boarding

I understand why some officials may view undergoing an audit as a form of torture. Being criticized in public can be, at the very least, uncomfortable. But a thorough audit is a valuable resource for developing better policies and procedures.

I am critical of some past audits. I have tried to make sure my criticism is based on facts, not on personalities. I don't intend to point a finger of blame. There certainly is shared responsibility between the Town Board and past and present Town Managers.

The point of an audit is not to find blame, but to uncover problems and suggest better ways. Before we ever heard of Pittard, Perry and Crone, the Town Board learned of the Tourism Board's practice of "rolling over" unspent allocation of funds from one budget year to the next and adding that amount to the following year's budget. That is a budget no-no. Long before we had a new auditor, the last board revealed that the administrative fee charged by the general fund to the water fund hadn't been recalculated in eight years. The bottom line is that the general fund had subsidized the water fund to the tune of about $150,000 over that eight year period. That doesn't even take into account the fact (discussed by the previous board in open session) that we weren't allowing for depreciation. We discussed the problem created by not handling the town's occupancy tax as a restricted fund and accounting for it "off books."

I think it would be irresponsible to criticize without offering some constructive suggestions. My main recommendation is to establish (or reestablish) a functioning water board. Ten of the twenty-three control and material deficiencies identified by the auditor are directly connected with administration of our water plant and associated billings and collections (including Bay River).

The town has convened a water board in the past. However, I am unable to find an ordinance establishing the board, spelling out its membership, terms of office and duties. We need such an ordinance.

The water board could advise the Town Board on policy issues, including procedures addressing each of the ten items from the audit. The board could address the question of where about a fourth of our water goes. It could also play an essential role interacting with the Rural Water Center when they come in February to assist us with our rate structure.

This is urgent.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Oriental Water Fund

An Oriental resident recently expressed concerns about the Town Commissioners' increase of the basic water rate by one dollar per month.

While it is true that any increase in fees, no matter how small, adds to the burden of citizens at a time of economic stress, a number of factors make this measure necessary:

  1. Oriental has been losing money on water due to higher prices for treatment chemicals, more stringent testing requirements and salary increases over the past eight years;
  2. Oriental's Water Fund is an enterprise fund - required by state law to be self-supporting;
  3. The Water Fund reimburses the general fund (general tax revenue) for administrative costs - principally salaries of town staff for time spent managing the water system;
  4. The administrative cost was last calculated in 2001 - since that time costs have escalated;
  5. For the past eight years,the General Fund has charged $48,000 per year, despite the fact that actual costs have increased to nearly $82,000 since 2001;
  6. Since 2001, the gap between actual cost and the reimbursed cost totals nearly $150,000;
  7. The commissioners were reluctant to burden ratepayers this year by increasing water rates to cover the entire cost, because of the poor state of the economy;
  8. For the coming fiscal year, commissioners increased reimbursement from the water fund to the general fund from $48,000 to $72,000, still about $10,000 short of actual costs;
  9. The plan is to recover the entire cost in next year's budget.
The bottom line is that Oriental's taxpayers have been subsidizing the water system for the past eight years. We have to stop this practice.

David Cox