Debate over Carroll’s non-user fee gets heated

By Allen Worrell -

The Carroll County Board of Supervisors will look at the possibility of repealing non-user water fees after being hammered by county residents for the second straight month in a July 9 debate that became heated at times.

Currently, Carroll County citizens who do not have county water in areas deemed mandatory are charged $28 per month. Ray Melton began the Citizens’ Time portion of the meeting, which lasted more than 45 minutes. He said he was concerned why neighbors of his were being charged for county water when they didn’t need county water. He said he thought back taxes owed to the county should be able to pay for that.

“We are in the process of collecting those as I speak,” Board of Supervisors’ Chairman Robbie McCraw said. “There has been a lot of concern over non-user fees in the last couple of months. I know it is something we have been working hard on some kind of conclusion of what we can and can’t do. I think everyone up here is in agreeance we need to do what is right for the entire county.”

After Melton, citizens Judy Jones, Robert Patton and Johnny Dillon allotted their speaking time to Benny Robinson, a former member of the Carroll County Industrial Development Authority (IDA). Robinson asked the board to indulge him in a basic question.

“Do you think the non-user mandate – billing and prosecuting residents without any goods or services being delivered – is right? A show of hands would be satisfactory,” Robinson said. “I believe it is wrong constitutionally, ethically and biblically. Moreover, I think it is an egregious overreach of government power. The non-user fee is nothing short of servitude. Residents of this county are being treated as subjects of the government. On their account, silence would be disloyalty.”

Robinson said the board took an oath to uphold and defend the constitution, an oath he doubts they take lightly. It’s an oath that is strong as it gets – the faithful execution of the duties of a public office, he said. He told the board he has been in contact with USDA regarding non-user fees, mandatory hookups and loan guarantees.

“I have shared my inferences with some of you offline. Most listened, some scoffed – for whatever reason,” Robinson said before summarizing his conclusions. “The USDA does not make non-user fees nor mandatory hookups a mandate. The USDA has advised other laws prohibit them from doing that. The USDA does offer suggestions and other specifics to act as guarantees during the loan application process. It falls on local government to mandate ordinances to discharge guarantees in certain cases. The USDA does offer in the letter of certification certain endorsements that can be used as loan guarantees. Carroll County made non-user fees mandatory not the USDA.”

Even so, he claimed the county allowed non-users in earlier projects such as “Route 100, Woodlawn and Gladeville” to be vacated of that fee.

“Legally troublesome to me is the non-consistency in the application of law, especially in violation of the Virginia statutes addressing the fair and reasonableness language. Was the non-user fee revenue a make or break decider to these water and sewer projects? I doubt it,” he said. “Guidance has been given to me that non-user fees may be revocable but it requires action from the county. The USDA has advised me that there are many tools in the bag to satisfy their requirements for loan guarantees.”

Robinson noted the USDA has offered many counties in Southwest Virginia the ability to engage different tactics to certify the letter of certification for low-interest loans. Many of those counties did not use mandatory fees or hookups, he added.

“Our citizens elect officials to govern, not to acquiesce to some ill-advised loan-application language. So it is time to lead, follow or get out of the way,” Robinson said. “Ironically, the USDA is getting the blame. The USDA did not get Carroll County into this quagmire. It is and was the governing body of this county. This is a self-inflicted gunshot perpetuated by lack of wisdom, knowledge and synergetic decision-making abilities. It is time to stop the blame game.”

Robinson told the board they are commanded to be good stewards. Decisions made in the past need to be reversed, he added, imploring the leadership of the board of supervisors and the Carroll County PSA not to throw logic and reason out the window.

“I think tonight you need to file a motion to suspend the collection of these fees until you have the time to work out the mechanics that you need to work out to satisfy the USDA,” Robinson concluded.

Citizen Robert Mabe said he has no water pump or meter and yet he is still being charged for county water. He wondered if the county reversed the non-user fee if those previously charged would get any of their money back.

The Debate Heats Up

At the conclusion of Citizens’ Time, Supervisor Bob Martin took issue with several of Robinson’s comments, saying he “would like to correct some things you were out in left field on.”

“You spoke your mind and I am not going to accept some of the statements you made,” Martin said. “I can tell you that Mister Jackson…”

Robinson cut off Martin at that point, saying “I know all about him,” in regards to the former area director of USDA-Rural Development.

“Well you must not know everything because your facts were wrong. Travis Jackson, the Board of Supervisors (members serving) on the PSA bent over backwards to do everything we could to get numbers to sign up for water for water projects to start with no hookup fees and on and on,” Martin said. “The good things were we got long-term loans for 0.5 percent interest and part of those loans were out and out grants. Travis Jackson came to the same podium that you were at and Travis said to the board we can no longer go operate the way we have been doing and you will be required that anytime a line goes by houses and businesses, it is mandatory that they hook up or they pay the minimum fee. I can tell you hand absolutely on my mother’s heart and the other on three Bibles that is what he said to the board.”

Martin said six PSA members were totally opposed to the idea, but they were also opposed to borrowing at 8 percent interest when they could borrow at 0.5 percent interest plus grant funds. The county could not “fork out the money for all these water connections” and it could not beat 0.5 percent interest, he said.

“So the board reluctantly adopted the word mandatory,” Martin said, calling it the better of two bad choices. “And I can tell you that six people on the board of supervisors were shown the door at the next election because of the word mandatory.”

As far as being good stewards of the county’s money, Martin said that is what Carroll did by going with the 0.5 percent interest rate. He added that if the county wants industry it has to invest in infrastructure.

Robinson asked for a rebuttal before following up with a jab and a question.

“It is hard to compete with your Oxford English, first of all. You can say I am inaccurate. I am only repeating language that was expressly given to me by the USDA,” Robinson said. “Travis Jackson is no longer there. And let me just ask you this, in all due respect, what industry do you have slated for Iron Ridge and Gambetta?”

Martin said none, but added Magnolia Industries in Hillsville needed 1 million gallons of water.

“You spoke about what we need to do to recruit industry. I was on the IDA and it is a rubber stamp for the county administrator. That’s all it is,” Robinson responded. “If we were doing the right job we might need to look at what it really takes to recruit industry, and it is not water. Water is a physiological need that every human being and every plant needs…Get what industry needs.”

Robinson eventually stormed out of the meeting before the conclusion of the non-user fee debate.

Board Vows to Research Further

Chairman Robbie McCraw said he was led to believe when he came on the board of supervisors that the county’s non-user fees were mandatory. He said the board is working to find out why and where the water contracts state the non-user fees are mandatory.

“I hope you all can understand we have to have proper documentation before we can do these things,” McCraw said.

Supervisor Rex Hill said of Carroll County’s 29,000 residents, only 79 pay the non-user water fees. He said he felt like the board needed to look into what would be required to vote on a change for the non-user fees. County Attorney Stephen Durbin said the county would have to advertise for a public hearing before it could repeal any ordinance.

“I agree there is some language that needs to be discussed, which is why I think we should have a public hearing to discuss this and bring in somebody from USDA that knows,” Hill said. “We are making $30,000 off those people. How much is that in our budget?”

Less than a percent, McCraw answered. Truitt countered the problem is not about the money at all.

“What I would respectfully suggest is to check and see about the language that gave rise to the belief that we were required to have these fees as a requirement of continuing to have these loans,” Truitt said. “If an actual lawyer can get that right to our satisfaction, then we can decide different strategies to make it most fair. If a connection is still required, perhaps we can adjust the price of the connection. If it is not required, we can make a decision to repeal it.”

Durbin said he would be happy to look through past documents and provide an opinion on whether the non-user fees are required and if there are options for repealing the ordinance.

“I want citizens of Carroll County to know I am determined to get an answer from somewhere on this and you all are due that answer,” McCraw said. “You are due the proof because that is all we can do as a board is give you the due diligence…It is something we need to move forward. If you take (the 79 non-users) and divide by the current users, it adds 60 cents per month (to their bill).”

Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN
County will look at repealing non-user fees

By Allen Worrell