BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Commission on Thursday voted to approve the extension of the Tennerton Public Service District’s utility territory along U.S. Route 33 West, clearing the way for the public service district to develop sanitary sewer infrastructure along the north and south sides of the highway.
However, Tennerton PSD manager Terry Gould said the PSD was unlikely to pursue any infrastructure projects “at this time,” although the it might in the future.
Following a packed public hearing that lasted more than two hours, the commission unanimously approved extension of the PSD’s current boundaries. The decision came after a months-long back-and-forth about who would construct water and sewer lines to about 10 businesses along Corridor H – the City of Buckhannon or the Tennerton PSD.
The two entities differ in how they would fund the project. The city plans to front the cost and then add a surcharge to the new businesses that would gain service, while the PSD would apply for funding and raise rates on their existing customers to cover the cost.
Several commercial property owners who spoke at Thursday’s public hearing said they’d approached the commission about the possibility of enlisting the Tennerton PSD to undertake the utility extensions because they’d grown tired of waiting for the City of Buckhannon to bring water and sanitary sewer service to their properties.
“We’ve been trying to get city water and city sewer out there for 10 years now,” Tom Shaw said. “Now, since we have a great county commission, we brought it before them to see what they could do. Right now, they have city water all the way to Pickens (in Randolph County), and we can’t get city water a mile out the road past Hampton Inn.”
“I’m not a bit [opposed] to putting in money for our costs – we’ve had negotiations and discussions with the city and it still might come down to that – but if there’s other avenues to pursue, that’s the way we want to go,” he added.
City attorney Tom O’Neill took issue with the notion that the city had been delaying the project, saying the business owners were unwilling to invest in the utility lines to their properties and instead want ordinary county residents to foot the bill through the Tennerton PSD’s proposal.
“The only reason we’re here is because the property owners want the Tennerton ratepayers to pay for the line,” O’Neill said after the meeting. “The city has been wanting to put that line in for eight years. The city has been talking with them for eight years. The city has been requiring them to put some skin in the game for eight years. They don’t want to put skin in the game. We’re not here because the city has been dragging its feet; we’re here because the property owners want someone else to pay for this project.”
Many Tennerton PSD customers voiced opposition to the boundary enlargement, saying they didn’t want to pay a significant rate increase – the PSD has said current customers could see rates rise by 25 percent – to fund a project that could be completed more economically by the city.
Mark Hayes asked the commissioners to consider the hundreds of residents that are currently served by the Tennerton PSD.
“As an existing Tennerton customer, I oppose the potentially 25 percent or more increase,” he said. “I would also ask that we look at what is the most economical thing … for the citizens, and I don’t think this is the solution, and for that reason, I’m opposed to it.”
The commission, however, noted that their decision does not rule out involvement from the City of Buckhannon, which can still legally offer service in areas near city limits.
The public hearing began with commission president Terry Cutright explaining that the commission wasn’t attempting to take utility territory from the city.
“I’d like to say, again, the whole purpose of this is not to take the district away from anybody, not to take the right to offer the service away from anybody,” Cutright said. “It’s to offer choices to the residents who live out in that area – instead of just one option, two options.”
Cutright emphasized the commission didn’t have the power to grant a project to one entity over the other. The commission only has the ability to extend a public service district’s area, clearing the way for that public service district to potentially develop a project in the area.
The West Virginia Public Service Commission, the state entity that regulates utilities, is the body that has the authority to grant particular projects to municipalities or public service districts, he said.
“Without us [extending the Tennerton PSD’s area of service], they can’t perform that duty or offer that service to those customers out that way,” Cutright said. “Now, just because we extend their service area doesn’t mean they’re the ones that are going to put the sewer system in. It’s still open to the city.”
The commission’s attorney, Bob Rodecker, said by state statute, the City of Buckhannon is able to run utility lines 20 miles from its limits even if the commission approved the order to expand the Tennerton PSD’s bounds. However, without the approval of the order calling for a boundary extension, the Tennerton PSD wouldn’t have the option to build a project outside its current territory “under any circumstances unless the expansion is granted today,” he said.
“There’s never been anything that’s prevented the city from providing service out there except for economics,” he said, “and that’s still going to be an issue.”
Longtime city engineer Sam Ludlow said he thought the city wasn’t permitted to build a project in another public service district’s territory, but Rodecker said that wasn’t so.
“They can’t serve within another municipality’s territory without permission,” Rodecker said, “but it doesn’t go the other way for the PSD. In other words, the PSD isn’t in a position to give permission for you to serve; you’re entitled to serve in the PSD’s territory, but they can’t serve in the city’s territory.”
“But the city can extend service into a PSD’s territory?” Ludlow asked.
“Yes, and [cities] do it all the time all over the state,” Rodecker replied.
Commissioner Sam Nolte said although he believed it’d be cheaper for the city to do the project than Tennerton PSD, they’d been unable to reach a deal with property owners.
“The reason why we’re here today is that the city and the property owners out that way have been in discussions for so long,” he said. “So, my question to Bob is, no harm, no foul by extending Tennerton PSD’s boundaries, correct?”
Rodecker said that was correct, and Nolte made a motion that the commission extend the boundaries.
Commissioner Kristie Tenney said she appreciated everyone’s feedback.
“It looks at this time that, for the people that were here and expressed interest in not having any kind of sanitary sewer service or rate increase, that doesn’t even look like it will be happening from either [entity], so I, too, will second that,” she said.
The motion to approve the boundary expansion passed unanimously.
Buckhannon officials said they plan to break ground on the sanitary sewer line on the north side of Route 33 West within 60 days and are still negotiating with property owners regarding the south side.
According to Gould, the Tennerton PSD had no immediate plans to interfere by constructing sanitary sewer lines on the north or south side.
“The Tennerton Public Service District is regulated by the Public Service Commission, and the City of Buckhannon has home rule,” Gould said, “and we’re not about to interfere with what they want to do, I can tell you that right now.”
Gould, who’s manager of both Tennerton PSD and Hodgesville PSD, said he had been approached by commission president Terry Cutright and was “not pushing” to do the project. In fact, the Tennerton PSD’s first priority now is a project in the Hickory Flat/Red Knob Road area.
“All I can say is, the Tennerton PSD is here if you need us,” he said. “If the city can do it, more power to them.”
O’Neill said the city has everything it needs to proceed with installing a sanitary sewer line on the north side to the Finks Run interchange except for some permits.
“That’s happening,” he said. “It’s going to Corridor H Tire.”
O’Neill said the installation of water and sanitary sewer service along the south side of Route 33 West “will proceed as fast as the property owners want it proceed.”
“The point that I was trying to make is, we need legal rights-of-way from these property owners to lay those lines. We can’t just run a line out there on that south side project. And [some of these commercial property owners], for purely self-interested reasons, that are completely rational economically, are less likely to grant those rights-of-way to us if they think they can get this line paid for by Tennerton’s ratepayers.”