What could have been just another genteel Townhall Meeting, this time to discuss the possible sale of water and wastewater utilities to Virginia American Water (VAW) instead turned into a metaphorical jailbreak as concerned citizens voiced concerns and opposition to the sale.
VAW spent the first 45 minutes providing background on their intentions, and just what would be involved if the sale does go through.
The public entered the fray with the perfunctory annoying retired person from up north, in this case from “Lawn Gyland Neu Yawk”. You know the ones that are arrogantly here to help the hapless bumpkins understand the stakes. This guy’s idea of helping was by offering opinions that were apropos of nothing, ignorant, and oblivious to Virginia State Law. The adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt” could have gone a long way here.
Town Council probably did not expect to hear from someone like Lorraine Huchler, who is a water and wastewater engineer, and that manages utility projects for Fortune 500 companies. Huchler took the council to task for not understanding the financial ramification of when the debt service is put to rest, and as part of the weighted calculations, not incorporating this “significant financial event” into the overall calculus. Huchler was also available to offer expertise on salary ranges for engineers that might be hired to work at the plants.
Huchler provided this further detail and analysis:
The current explanation of the financial benefits – the ACCURATE rate projection should VAW purchase the plants, and the ACCURATE costs for the Town of Cape Charles to keep the plants for the next 15 years DO NOT YET EXIST. The Town released a teeny-tiny bit of information (https://www.capecharles.org/agendaView.aspx?aid=11976&categoryid=11497) that has no meaningful financial analyses. Instead, the document simply shows a scorecard comparing various attributes for the two options (sell or keep the plants): rates, water quality, impact on annexation agreement…)
I asked about for the 10-year operating and capital cost projections for the Town keeping the plant – and was told that they don’t have that kind of specific data. Translation: the financial projection for the option to keep the plant is has a very low level of confidence – in other words, the Town is using inaccurate data to make a huge financial, town-quality-of-life, and political decision.
Adding to the complexity of this decision is the “WIFFIM” factors: too often the communications from the Town sound like advocacy – instead of informing stakeholders; VAW told us all about what they’re doing for their current customers and how wonderful life would be if they were here – instead of understanding the range of features and benefits that really mattered to a small town trying to hang on to the small-town spirit, the employees of the water and wastewater plants who believe that VAW will dramatically increase their pay and benefits, and the elephant in the room: the Town refuses to talk about the estimated revenue that would be received, how they would spend it (how about a “rainy day fund?”) and, most importantly, “WHO WOULD BE MAKING THE DECISION ON HOW TO SPEND THE FUNDS?’ [I’m not a resident of Cape Charles, but it seems to me that the folks serving on town council will have the loudest, and perhaps only voice in how the town spends the funds. Think about who is serving and the next elections…]
The bottom line: this is not about how much you pay for water – or the qualify of your water – it’s about holding the town council accountable for a defensible financial analysis of the option to sell – and defensible financial analyses of the option to outsource the operation and maintenance and collaborate with HRSD. The Town Council, first and foremost, had a fiduciary responsibility to not just the residents, but to all of the stakeholders here – to insist on rational, defensible decision-making.
Former Councilman Frank Wendell attacked the issue of just what the word “expansion” means in the context of Cape Charles and the lower Eastern Shore, “We have heard that this would be a franchise agreement between the Town and Virginia Water, but if we privatize, who calls the shots, who controls the dollars, who has control if we expand the system out to 13, and someone wants to build strip malls that will directly compete with our local restaurants and boutiques?”
The short answer is the State Corporation Commission, however, the town could intervene and offer opposition to said expansion. Wendall’s point goes back to attempts by the town and county to create a Public Service Authority to essentially provide water and sewer services to residents, businesses, industries, and schools in Northampton County. You folks in Cheriton, you do have a dog in this fight, this all could be coming your way. It they want run pipes out into the county, they can make you hook up and pay, whether you want to or not. If you don’t believe me, ask the folks across the Bay that live in Great Bridge.
No Cape Charles meeting would be complete without an absurd and surreal turn of events. Frank Wendall once again obtained the microphone and began to question Town Manager Hozey regarding grants that could be used to relieve the Town’s debt service:
Wendall: We have heard in this meeting that Onancock was able to secure loans that they used to relieve there debt service. Is the town looking for such grants?
Wendall: Have you put any applications in since you were hired?
Wendall: Why not?
Hozey: The Onancock grant was specifically tied to Hampton Roads Sanitation District.
Wendall: Do they have to be tied to Hampton Roads Sanitation?
Hozey: I don’t know.
Wendall: Do our debts have to be tied to anything to retire the debt?
Hozey: I have no idea.
Wendall: Why not?
Hozey: Because I just don’t know
Wendall: Why not?
Hozey: Because I’m an idiot. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Mr. Hozey is certainly not an idiot, and has provided a thorough body of work around this issue. However, not a single member of the Town Council came to his defense. It could be assumed that either they agreed with assessment, or they were heeding the adage, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt”, however, this has never stopped any of them before.
The Annexation Agreement once a again popped in for a visit, and did it another fine job of exposing the lack of critical thinking available in Cape Charles. Hozey continues to call it “poorly worded” since in 1991 a dollar amount was not attached, and that the agreement is somehow complex (people, it’s not like it’s written using the cuneiform alphabet). Councilman Bennett doesn’t even know what parties were involved in the process, yet apparently feels he is qualified to weigh-in (extrapolate that where you will). If anything, it only serves to muddy the water and remove focus. Sure, it is important that the developers pay what they owe, but Preserve Communities was fully aware of the obligation when they purchased Bay Creek. As an aside, Frank Wendell was on Town Council and actually signed the Annexation Agreement.
It’s almost a joke, but Cape Charles has no idea how bad they really have it. Capital Projects manager Bob Panek attempted to lay out the issues that far outweigh the Annexation Agreement and the expansion of the wastewater plant. The pump stations, and gravity collection systems are close to 40 years old. The water tower itself was built in 1993. The last time the town upgraded a pump station was 10 years ago. To refurbish and bring the Mason Avenue station up to speed cost $1.4 million. All of the utility systems that service Bay Creek are also getting long in the tooth, approaching 30-years-old themselves.
Spread this out and you see the number of capital investments that need to be on the table.
Also remember that much of the underground infrastructure dates back to the 1800s. The overall system is much closer to collapse than it is to viability.
The meeting closed with some last minute fireworks as Mr. Wendall once again had the Town Manager and Council on the ropes as he accosted them over their perceived hiring process incompetence, “Can someone, anyone just answer the simple question. How much would it cost just to hire someone that can run our plant? Anyone? So, you’re just going to sit there and not answer? If I start guessing, can you tell me if I’m at least getting hot or cold? I find the lack of answers here from local government very disturbing.”
So it goes.