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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Northern Brunswick governments discuss apparent ‘potential agreement,’ County ‘disappointed’ about some aspects

H2GO's reverse osmosis equipment sits unused in a warehouse as a multimillion-dollar lawsuit carries on in Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Rodney McCoy)
H2GO’s reverse osmosis equipment sits unused in a warehouse as a multimillion-dollar lawsuit carries on in Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Rodney McCoy)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Leland distributed a joint press release Tuesday representing Belville, Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO, and Navassa, announcing officials representing the northern Brunswick County governments had arrived at a potential solution regarding the future of utilities in the region.

The announcement’s headline and status as a joint release suggest officials reached a potential agreement, but the release’s language was less committal, describing it as a matter that was and will continue to be discussed.

Related: Brunswick Commissioners ask local utilities to consider regionalization

It’s not clear which officials — either those elected or staff members — from various governing bodies participated in discussions, or when discussions were held, or if such discussions were held in person.

In a response to several questions for clarification, Leland’s spokesperson said the town did not plan to comment further at this time but may do so in the future.

Typically, government officials err on the side of caution when discussing litigation matters. Outside of legal filings, it can be difficult for the public to participate in or stay abreast of legal negotiations that involve millions of dollars in public assets.

Background

Leland, Belville, and H2GO are entangled in a lawsuit, which has cost over $1 million in combined legal fees since it was filed in December 2017. Outgoing H2GO and Belville Commissioners arranged the transfer of all of H2GO’s assets, an estimated $60 million value, breaking state ethics law in a move Superior Court Judge Charles Henry recently ruled was illegal, null, and void. Belville is appealing the decision.

Meanwhile this summer, officials have arranged several private regional meetings to coordinate future utility plans and attempt to settle the lawsuit. Also, there’s an ongoing moratorium at Brunswick County’s northern sewer plant as $218.5 million in combined utility projects are moving ahead.

The plan

The few concepts in the potential agreement released include, verbatim:

  • Belville would return all Sanitary District assets.
  • Leland would convey its water and sewer lines to the Sanitary District.
  • The Sanitary District would operate and maintain all water and sewer assets as a singular system.
  • The Sanitary District would construct an aquifer-based reverse osmosis water treatment plant.

These concepts will be drafted into documents to be approved by Leland, Belville, and H2GO’s elected boards in the next several months, according to Leland’s release. However, the municipal election is less than three months away, with several key seats on these boards up for reelection.

County ‘disappointed’

Brunswick County and Navassa officials “have been part of the conversation,” according to Leland’s release. But the announcement disappointed Brunswick County leaders, who just last month applauded a presentation that included a county position statement that affirms the county is experienced with the staff to manage, finance, and construct water treatment facilities.

Ann Hardy, Brunswick County Manager, said that while she commends leaders for working together, she’s disappointed that the county won’t provide treated water to the northern region. Nearly a quarter of all treated water in Brunswick County is currently sold to H2GO.

Hardy’s full comment:

The county appreciates that Leland, Brunswick Regional Water & Sewer H2Go, Belville, and Navassa invited the county to participate in the regional water discussions and allowed the county the opportunity to provide input. I shared with Leland, Belville and Brunswick Regional Water & Sewer H2Go that I commend them for working together and reaching a proposal that they all support and feel is in the best interests of their customers. I am disappointed that the county will not be the treated water provider for the northern region.  The county will continue moving forward with the design and construction of the North West Water Treatment Plant expansion and Low Pressure Reverse Osmosis System so that the remainder of water customers in Brunswick County will receive water that has been treated by reverse osmosis advanced technology. Through the county’s regional partnership with the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority and construction of the parallel raw water line, and the North West Plant expansion the county will ensure an adequate supply of water to meet residential, commercial and industrial growth in Brunswick County for the long-term.

Brunswick County Chairman, Frank Williams, echoed Hardy’s sentiments:

“While I disagree with the ultimate outcome of the discussions, I applaud the officials from Leland, Belville and H2GO for finally coming together and talking with each other. This issue has been a lingering cloud over northern Brunswick County for far too long. With that said, the County still maintains that the entire region and County would benefit from the economies of scale of having a single low-pressure reverse osmosis plant operated by Brunswick County. As a Leland resident and H2GO customer, I hope the parties will remain open to that option. Brunswick County remains committed to providing clean, safe drinking water for all Brunswick County customers.”

Stance switches, plan changing

The announcement represents Leland’s third version of its compromise plan in three months.

It’s also the town’s fourth position stance change on H2GO’s partially-constructed $35 million reverse osmosis (RO) plant since early 2018.

  1. In a January 2018 legal filing, Leland described the RO plant as “unnecessary and expensive.”
  2. In a surprise announcement in May, Leland released its first iteration of the “Regional Compromise Plan,” including the idea that Leland would build and own the plant.
  3. After a June 24 private regional meeting, Leland shared a different proposal with officials, entitled “Proposal for a Regional Solution.” This version included stipulations that Brunswick County would build and own the plant, but Leland would own and lease the land it’s located on.
  4. Leland’s Tuesday announcement states H2GO would own and operate the plant (ownership and leasing arrangements were not described).

A request for H2GO take over Leland’s existing utility lines appeared in the town’s second proposal, and appears to be a concept H2GO has agreed to with the recent announcement.

However, one position stance has never wavered: Belville should return H2GO’s assets to H2GO. In its counter-offer to Leland’s first Regional Compromise Plan, Belville announced it would return H2GO’s titles only if the utility could guarantee the RO plant would be built and that no other entity could obtain its assets.

As presented, the basic concepts of the agreement shared this week are most similar to Belville’s public counter-offer in May.

Though Belville was ordered to return all of H2GO’s assets, its pending appeal essentially froze the mandate. Belville’s attorney, Charles Baldwin, confirmed in a statement that the town agreed to Leland’s joint press release Tuesday. Baldwin said the town is pleased the parties’ discussions are progressing. He declined to answer other questions, stating that the town is unable to provide further comment because the matter involves ongoing settlement discussions.

Steve Hosmer, H2GO candidate and Clean Water Team advocate, shared his own press release on the matter. Hosmer said the basic concepts of the proposal mirrors one his group first presented to H2GO’s board in December 2018, but never materialized after it was tabled by anti-RO-plant board members.

Read Leland’s announcement below:

Leland Announcement by Johanna Ferebee on Scribd


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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