By Frank Aikmus
Editor’s note: Last month, Union County commissioners approved a 15.5% water and sewer rate increase for the next two years (click here for details from the county). The rate increase will support the Yadkin Regional Water Supply Project, which is designed to meet the county’s water needs into the future. Commissioner Frank Aikmus read these remarks during a discussion about water at the Jan. 6 board meeting. The county’s video feed of the meeting begins in the middle of the conversation, so the context of the discussion isn’t known at this time. Commissioner Stony Rushing has been critical of the rate increase on his Facebook page, going as far as picking winners and losers in the Yadkin Project, which he described as a “boondoggle.”
Over the past few weeks, there’s been much talk on social media about water and sewer rate increases and what is considered and what is being done. And I think to quote Donald Trump, much of it is fake news.
There was an allegation that staff isn’t doing anything or what they are doing are things that haven’t been directed by the board. That just isn’t accurate. In fact, I call it fake news.
The board provided direction in the form of two votes on Aug. 1, 2016, for the wastewater plant and the water plant. Commissioner (Stony) Rushing, who happened to be chairman at the time, Commissioner (Richard) Helms, Commissioner (Jerry) Simpson and former Commissioner Lance Simpson voted in support. I was absent from that meeting.
The direction was very clear when that vote was taken on an interim solution that would be moved on with and the long-term approach for the lower Crooked Creek plant was clear. There should be no confusion about what direction staff was moving in.
Additionally, in 2016, and multiple other times, staff has made it clear that there would have to be short-term improvements with a long-term approach being targeted for six to eight years. In other words, the 2024 to 2026 time frame. This approach was important based on cash flow and the desire to keep rate increases to a minimum.
I believe this is what staff has done, and the recent decisions that have been made were necessary for moving our system forward.
Allow me to provide some historical perspective.
For more than 10 years, water and sewer rates were unchanged in Union County. Let’s stop for a minute and be very clear: We are talking about water and sewer rates here, not the tax rate.
Again, some of the fake news sources are telling folks that their tax rate is going up. That simply is not true. The rates that were increased will only be paid by those who currently use county water and sewer.
So again, let me give you a bit of history.
In 2011, staff recommended that water/sewer rates should increase 7% in 2012, an additional 7% in 2013 and an additional 7% in 2014. The board of commissioner, instead, increased it by 7% in 2012, 3.5% in 2013, 3.5% in 2014.
In 2014, staff recommended that water/sewer rates be increased by 8% in all three years of 2015, 2016 and 2017. The board of commissioners approved 6.5% for each of those three years.
In 2017, staff recommended 7% for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020. The board of commissioners approved 6.5% for each of those years.
I liken this to my financial planner telling me to save 18% annually for my retirement and me only deciding to save 10%. Who do I get to put the blame on when my retirement is not fully funded? Nobody but myself.
The fact that we did not fully fund the recommendations, and I voted not to fully increase the rates at that time, only served to kick the can down the road. Well, now it’s time to pay for the water plant and we’ve run out of road to kick the can any further. That’s why we have a 15.5 water percent increase these next two years.
This isn’t about paving the road, no pun intended, for future growth or to benefit some national developer. This is about providing water for every resident of Union County that is here today and has been here for many years.
This is about continuing works that were started 2011 and work that we have already spent approximately $27 million on. The rate increases provide a clean and safe water solution to Union County for existing and future residents. Is the county growing now? Yes. Is it going to continue to grow? I think we can safely say it will.
It’s been said recently in social media there are other alternatives that would be less expensive and do more. Again, this simply isn’t accurate. Let’s call it fake news.
All of these alternatives that have been spouted on social media have been vetted. Before it was decided in 2011 to move forward with the Yadkin water project, the county looked at no less than 11 other options, including Anson County, groundwater, Alligator Water.
Two important things to mention here is they weren’t cheaper and they wouldn’t be owned by the ratepayers of this county. You may think, ‘well, who cares if you own the water plant?’ Well, the answer is simple: We all should.
By owning the water source, we control the rates, the cost of future implementation and direct where it goes. I believe that the people of Union County who own the water and sewer rates are better served in owning the commodity rather than simply leasing it or renting it. We must remember that water is just that – a commodity.
It’s very similar to oil. When the U.S. was dependent on foreign countries to provide that commodity, we paid more. When the U.S. started drilling and providing our own oil, prices went down. Water is no different.
Do you want to own your own or be dependent on a neighboring county or a business to provide it? Owning a life-sustaining commodity like water is the right answer, in my opinion.
I’ve noticed that every time an election is looming, there is talk of getting water to longtime residents of Union County. By the comments I’ve seen on social media, this has been an empty promise for decades.
I’m proud to say that I’ve never made that promise, but I’m delighted to be part of a solution that will give us the resource to start making that a reality. It is curious to me that the commissioner who made the promise most recently is the one most adamantly opposed to doing so now.
So here we are again at election time and one of my colleagues is stating that no work is being done to provide water to existing residents of Union County. Yep, you guessed it – fake news.
In March 2019 at a public works retreat with this board, staff moved forward in changing the short-line water extension program. We engaged Wootton and Associates and Barry Gullet. They provided a review of the short-line program and shared opportunities for expanding water lines throughout the county’s unserved areas.
A deadline of October was established and that deadline was met. There were several updates from the consultants and staff throughout the process, and we took action to eliminate the short-line extension backlog over the next three years at $5 million a year.
Beginning in 2022, there will be a new short-line extension process that this board has approved, and budget decisions will be made on an annual basis based on the application process. Staff has indicated a preliminary capital budget numbers that $5 million could be allocated going forward if needed.
Additionally, beginning in 2023, staff has shown $5 million per year for water main extension. This is work being done now for the 2050 comprehensive plan and an anticipated water/sewer master plan.
We will finally have the water that we own and are now working on creating the plan to distribute it.
All these components are directly related to providing water to existing residents. We are projecting that 30 miles of water pipe be laid in Union County over the next three years. That is a significant accomplishment.
To dispel another rumor, the statement that this board approved spending over $900 million, again fake news. The board approved spending $305 on primarily the Yadkin water project. Had we approved $900 million, the rate increase would be far more than 31%.
None of us like higher rates, but when the rates are associated with providing families safe drinking water, I could not and did not vote against it.
Do I wish that we had planned better 20 years ago? Yes. Did we? No.
Unfortunately, if we want to have a long-term solution to water in this county, we have to pay for it. As (Leonardo) da Vinci said, “In time and with water, everything changes” and the time is now.
In closing, I’m reminded of what Mark Twain said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” I realize that we do not always agree on issues that come before us as a board; however, what I would hope is that we would respect the decisions that are made and move forward in a concerted effort for the betterment of the county that we all claim to love.
Rushing responds to fake news remarks
(Editor note: Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing responded to Commission Frank Aikmus’s fake news remarks at the end of the Jan. 6 board meeting.)
We talked about kicking the can down the road, how we’ve been kicking the can. The can has not been kicked down the road by this board, nor has the funding been kicked down the road by this board or any previous boards.
In 2019, we were told that the Yadkin project had gone up in price by almost $100 million. It went up from approximately $200 million to approximately $300 million.
It’s not about kicking the can. It’s about sticker shock.
We weren’t told those many years ago when we were making these increases, so how could we have known because none of us knew the price tag was going up on this board. A few of us asked questions about it. Why did it go up? What are we doing?
Chesterfield and Anson counties have pipes of water to the Union County line in several locations. They have water countywide. They’re low-wealth counties. We asked and was told by Tommy Tucker and Dean Arp to ask.
Said there is money available for you to get money throughout the county. Go to Alligator Water. Talk to Alligator Water. Ask them if they can provide water and if there’s monies available through the bonds to help Union County. Our staff didn’t vet those options.
We were told in that meeting in November – that two-day workshop – that if we had found another source of water that we would lose interbasin transfer, which would make the Yadkin project less feasible than it already is.
You have voted for $900 million. You have voted for more than $900 million. I predict it will be well over $1 billion.
The first time I heard the $900 million figure was not from our staff. It was from Alligator Water. The engineers they were talking to told them, “Hey, $600 million is not what it’s going to be. It’s going to be well over that. It will be well over $900 million. That’s the first time I heard it and that was the beginning of last year.
We had developers that sued Union County over impact fees and they won. The potential exposure was $50 million. What’s to say they’re not going to sue us again and win? And all these impact fees that we raise on them, too – or system-development fees – are also in potential to be taken back, which will cause the cost to go up even more.
You’ve already heard – this doesn’t include the sewer plant that the manager says is going to be necessary to treat the water eventually. The staff presented a $122 million sewer plant on Crooked Creek. It’s not even in the 33%.
We’re talking about the water project. It’s going to drive it 33%.
So the fake news that Commissioner Aikmus was talking about, those soundbites sound really good, but it’s not conservative to raise water rates 33%. It’s not conservative to raise taxes. It’s not conservative to put a burden on the school system of $300,000 more a year unless we are going to fund it out of taxes. We don’t fund it out of the enterprise fund.
It’s not fair and God bless them, Wingate may not have to pay it. I don’t know. I’ve asked (Assistant County Manager) Brian Matthews to get that information to us and hopefully he’ll come up with something soon. But Wingate may not have to pay the 33% and they’re the only other entity on the interbasin transfer.
So I don’t appreciate the fake news comments. I think that you’ve ignored a lot of information that we have been given.
I don’t really appreciate the way this was handled, Mr. manager and tonight. I think it could have been handled a lot better, but I’ve been asking hard questions, so I don’t mind getting hard questions.
Thank God, I’ve got a good memory.
Aikmus responds to Rushing’s remarks
(Editor’s note: Here’s what Commissioner Frank Aikmus had to say in response to Commissioner Stony Rushing’s remarks toward the end of the Jan. 6 meeting)
I’m reminded of Ronald Reagan in the debate when he simply said, “There you go again.” More fake news.
You approved a $900 million bond. No we didn’t. Fake news.
We didn’t kick the can down the road. Had we approved the rate increases that were given to us at the time they were given to us at the level they were given to us, we wouldn’t be faced with a 15.5% increase for the next two years. So again, fake news.
You might not like it, and maybe you don’t like the way this was handled tonight, but I can tell you this, the rest of colleagues on this board don’t like the way you’ve handled spreading lies and misinformation.
So your memory might be good in your opinion, but the information that you are sharing is not factual.