This article was written by Martin Mayer in response to Town Manager Hozey’s 3/25/22 opinion in the Eastern Shore Post. Martin Mayer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and a resident of Cape Charles, Virginia.
On March 18, 2022, I published a column in the Eastern Shore Post discussing the potential sale of the Town of Cape Charles’s water and wastewater assets. In the next edition of the Eastern Shore Post (March 25th), the Town Manager, John Hozey, responded with his own column disparaging me and other concerned citizens for raising questions about the process and transparency of the potential sale.
The point of my column was to highlight the uncertainty and complexity surrounding the potential sale and the rate projections used by the town to justify entering into negotiations with Virginia American Water (VAW). It was not meant to be a projection of potential future rate increases but was to illustrate the historical record of the increases in VAW-serviced municipalities, the lack of influence by ratepayers on the SCC decision regarding the approval of rate increase requests, and the difficulty for ratepayers to evaluate the legitimacy of this process when there is little shared information.
It is inappropriate for the town manager, the highest-salaried town employee, to publicly criticize a few concerned citizens engaging in a public discussion of an immensely important community matter. The issue at hand is likely the second most significant issue in terms of real dollars in the past century for the Town of Cape Charles, and one that will impact residents for decades to come. To date, the only justification and explanation of the rate projections have been a bulleted list of general assumptions with no supporting financial data. In addition, there has been no public disclosure of the methodology used to create these projections. For the town manager to be frustrated by the level of citizen scrutiny of this important issue is a concern. This is what an engaged citizenry does. The data for the analysis in the initial article was from the State Corporation Commission (SCC), the agency that regulates rates. I used this data – not because the SCC keeps easily accessible records – but because the town has refused to share the data and methodology used to calculate its rate projections. At a council meeting, the town manager indicated that the town’s forecast for the capital budget was a five-year projection. To create a forecast for the rates should the town keep the plant, the town and the PPEA consultant must use the capital budget projection. The other complexity is that the PPEA consultant showed a 10-year rate forecast. What capital budget data did the PPEA consultant use for the rate projection for years 6 through 10?
There have been multiple council meetings and two duplicate town hall meetings and this is to be commended, but lingering questions remain. The format of council meetings does not lend itself to an actual question and answer session, with citizens restricted to a three-minute public comment that is rarely addressed. Despite several of the same questions being asked at multiple hearings and meetings, answers have been hard to come by.
When town council voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with VAW, a council member justified this decision, stating that the town needed to enter negotiations to be able to answer citizen questions. This process has been ongoing for over a year, and the town council is still unable to address citizen queries. When the discussion turned to who would lead the negotiations, the town manager dismissed members of council’s offers to sit in on the negotiation process because of logistical concerns. American Water is the largest private water utility in the country. I have no reason to doubt the town manager’s aptitude in these negotiations, but the involvement of council members is a reasonable expectation because the decision rests not with the town manager, but with engaged and informed council members participating in discussions of these complex issues during this phase.
This decision, whether to sell or hold, is one that will impact the economic vitality of this community for decades. The water and wastewater infrastructure are the town’s highest-priced assets. There is no reversing this decision. The few municipalities that have been able to retake control after-sale, have done so at enormous effort and expense, including litigation and, in some cases, legislation to enact new state laws. I am not advocating one position over another, but as a concerned citizen with two small children who will be dealing with this long after me, I want, and expect, a more thorough and open discussion of the process.