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Water coming to county district

By By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE, News Editor
Water is on its way to Chocowinity-Richland Township.
Last week, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to authorize the construction of Water District VI.
The district will serve a broad area south of the Pamlico River – west of N.C. Highway 306 to the Pitt County line and south to the Craven County line, excluding the Town of Chocowinity, which already has water.
The board's acceptance of a budget and several low bids basically authorized the construction of the last of seven county water districts to be built.
Construction of the district will extend water service to about 1,900 customers.
Work could begin in 70 days or more, according to Curtis Jett, manager of the Water Department. Preconstruction conferences with contractors could take 60 days, followed by a 10-day period before work begins, he said.
But it could take a year actually to get water flowing, said Van Lewis, a civil engineer with McDavid Associates. Pipes have to be installed, along with treatment plant operations, wells and tanks. The firm is handling the construction.
The Water Department hopes to sign up 2,400 customers to help pay off loans to finance the system, Jett said.
The early sign-up fee is $75.
Customers who sign up early are expected to pay the minimum monthly water bill, which is $24 per month for the first 2,000 gallons of water.
The average monthly water bill is $31 to $32, Jett said, though the figures may vary significantly depending on use.
The sign-up fee includes the cost of hooking up to the water system, but the customer has to cover the costs of extending a pipe from his home to the water meter and placement of a valve in the line, Jett related.
Plumbers may charge up to $2 a foot to install pipe, Jett said.
However, after the early sign-up period, when instillation of piping passes a customer's house, the fee will jump to $500, plus a $75 deposit.
The water system is designed to have user fees cover debt service, Lewis said. The more people who sign up, the less the system will cost each user.
"Together, they can have affordable water," Lewis said.
Since the water project began in 1988, the county and McDavid Associates have been able to secure about $85 million in grants and loans from state and federal sources, according to Lewis. Forty-five percent of the money was grants and 55 percent loans, Lewis said.
Recently, money came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development section, the state's Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the N.C. Economic Development Center.
District VI received more than $8 million in grants, Jett said.
"People don't realize that's money we don't pay back," he said.
So far, no tax money has been used on the project, Jett added. Water fees have been used to pay down the debt in all other districts, Lewis said.
"And they're struggling, but that is what we have been able to do," he said.
Theoretically, system construction could be funded entirely through user fees, but it could carry a $50-per-month bill, and "that's just beyond people's ability to pay," Lewis said.
The system is divided into districts, and the commissioners act as the governing board of each district. The districts were created because government units are limited in the amount of public funding they can receive, Lewis said.
The county submitted materials and was approved for funding for each district. But "the water does not know district lines," Lewis related, adding that the districts are political entities that allow the county to keep separate records.
Though each commissioner supported going ahead with the building of District VI last week, discussion briefly diverged when Commissioner Jay McRoy pointed out anticipated cost overruns cited by McDavid Associates.
McRoy made a motion to approve the three phases of District VI construction, but the motion included a stipulation that the county seek other firms to handle contracts for future projects. The motion got a second from Commissioner Carol Cochran.
Explaining his motion, McRoy said the total budget for the project was more than $19 million. Roughly $18 million of that was set aside for construction, with more than $1.3 million slated to go to McDavid Associates.
USDA's Rural Development said the project was proceeding according to the rules, "but the system's being milked to the hilt," McRoy said.
"It's good that we were able to get" grant money, McRoy added, but with more planning, the project "could have been done in a better way."
Commissioner David Moore said McDavid Associates shouldn't be excluded from future rounds of bidding.
"I think, first of all, it's a little illegal for us to say that we will no longer do business (with McDavid) when it's a bid process," he said.
Lewis said the procurement of professional services "is not done on a bid basis. It's done on a proposal basis where price is not the only consideration." He said McDavid Associates advised USDA of potential cost overruns and the agency advised the firm to proceed.
After discussion, McRoy withdrew the part of his motion calling for the possible exclusion of the firm, but he said he wanted it understood that "we just don't necessarily give (work) to this company."
Jonathan Clayborne may be reached by telephone at 940-4213 or via e-mail at jonathan@wdnweb.com.