Weaverville – A council committee of the Town of Weaverville held a Zoom meeting last week discussing the expansion of the town’s water treatment plant. The council formed the committee after learning back in September that an earlier estimate on the project’s cost was off by millions. The meeting led to the realization that a regional authority might be in order instead of just the town.
Weaverville Vice Mayor Jeff McKenna and Council members Andrew Nagle and John Chase, who make up the committee, met with Public Works Director Dale Pannell and Water Treatment Supervisor Trent Duncan. The meeting lasted for about an hour and a half. Council members asked questions to determine whether to move forward on the expansion. Before the revised price tag of over $13.5 million, up from the original estimate of about six million, the plant was a foregone conclusion.
After McKenna opened the meeting, Chase had a number of questions for Pannell and Duncan about the current system.
Duncan told the committee that while the existing water plant was being built, part of the plant’s capacity of 1.5 million gallons per day was ready accounted for. According to Duncan, the day the water plant was operational, 300,000 gallons per day was spoken for, so “…if we expand, we’re going to have that full amount for future. So it’s not like we’re going to be coming back in 25 years and looking again. It should last a lot longer than the previous because we’re not already allotted a bunch of capacity somewhere.”
Supplying From Asheville
When asked where Weaverville and Mars Hill would get their water from if the plant were not enlarged, Trent said from wells, Yet, many issues accompany that solution and it’s not desirable for commercial use. McKenna asked if North Buncombe could funnel water from Asheville. Trent explained that this is not a possibility—there are issues with reversing the follow of the water in the system. Building a suitable connection to Asheville could cost $10 million “just to become a customer.” Fire hydrant pressure and water quality issues were other concerns.
Nagle asked what the optimum days for storage are for the Weaverville plant. Duncan replied, “I really like where we’re at for storage…What I’d like to back that up with is…resiliency and redundancy. We don’t have the generators we need. We have some basins that have…issues.”
Duncan said to remove a basin would take an extended amount of time, but if the plant was expanded, the town would have backup basins and generators.
The way the state makes the water plant estimate future water allocation was also a source of conversation. Nagle said that the state forces the town to use four times what the town is actually seeing.
Weaverville Mayor Patrick Fitzsimmons, who was in the meeting, mentioned making water rates more expensive to help minimize the water usage. Pannell agreed. The rate is set for the first 3,000 gallons per month, after which it is about 95 cents higher per gallon.
Asked what the plant needs right now, Duncan said generators. That’s not tied to plant expansion, stated Nagle, “We can approve you generators next week and get you those, right?” Duncan affirmed but stated that the city may be receiving grants in the spring to fund that. Duncan also would like to move away from chlorine gas to something less dangerous. That would take new tanks but the tank would does not need to expand to do so. He also said that the basins were going to need coating soon. Duncan named off several other items that he said were rolled into the expansion project.
Chase asked the cost of the item separate from the expansion. Duncan said about three million.
Nagle asked how much was in the water capital reserve fund that could be used to fix things. Town Attorney Jennifer Jackson said it was about $560,000 and about one million in the total fund that could be spent. The water plant currently has about $300,000 in annual debt service.
Nagle believes that all of the town’s American Rescue Funds ($1.22 million) should be spent on the water treatment plant. “But I’m one of seven votes.”
Things got testy when Nagle tried to find out if the engineering firm was given the town an independent opinion in their study. Weaverville Council member Catherine Cordell, who was listening in on the meeting along with the rest of the council, interjected, saying, “I know you’re looking for something like MB Haynes that has five different divisions and one of them happens to be a contractor or some other form and they will make money off of this!”
“I thought this was a simple question,” responded Nagle, “Nobody expects them to do anything for free. That’s not what I’m saying. We have a consultant that we hired and I get it! I get it. We paid them to give us their opinion. I’m trying to find out if it’s an independent opinion.” He then asked if WithersRavenel was getting any of the $13.1 million in cost to build the plant. Jackson said yes in the design phase, bidding phase and for some “bit of contract administration,” but that is it.
Town Manager Selena Coffey said that WithersRavenel would get paid whether the town did the project, went to Asheville to supply more water or another direction because they would be doing work for the town. “We can go with another engineering group at any time.”
“That’s all we were looking for…just wanted to know who’s advising us and what financial stake they have in their advice. That’s all,” said Nagle. “And how the dollars flow on the overall project,” added McKenna.
McKenna spoke about having a responsibility to the region—Nagle brought up that it might be time for a regional water authority not just the town. It was learned that town residents’ tax money was not going to pay for the plant or system, as the loan was a revenue loan. The users of the system were actually paying for all costs and loans.
McKenna said he’d been thinking about this for a few years; maybe this should be a regional water authority separate from the town, like Woodfin Water. Fitzsimmons said maybe Buncombe County ought to be brought into the conversation. Selena said that Mars Hill was already brought in on discussions on “this process in being a regional participant a couple of years ago.”