BUCKHANNON – The West Virginia Public Service Commission on Thursday issued an informal opinion on the controversy between the city, Tennerton Public Service District and the Upshur County Commission regarding Route 33 West utility extensions that city officials say should resolve the dispute in their favor.
At council’s meeting Thursday, Dec. 19, city attorney Tom O’Neill shared a response from the PSC to an informal request for guidance the city had submitted when the controversy arose. The PSC is the body that regulates utility providers in the state. The question at the heart of the matter has been which entity – the city or Tennerton PSD – should deliver sanitary sewer service to the north and south sides of Route 33 west of Buckhannon at the request of a handful of commercial developers, including J.F. Allen Company.
O’Neill said when the conflict first developed, the city requested an informal opinion from the PSC.
“When the controversy arose, with respect to the Tennerton Public Service District serving the area westerly of where our current main line ends as well as on the south side of Route 33, we decided to approach the Public Service Commission because they will undertake an examination of the issues and issue informal guidance,” O’Neill explained.
Although the opinion isn’t binding, “for a lot of reasons, it represents what we could expect the PSC to rule should a formal proceeding on this issue arise,” the city attorney added.
O’Neill pointed to two key sentences.
In a Dec. 19 opinion sent via email to the city, county and Tennerton PSD, David Acord, public utilities director of the Water and Wastewater Division for the PSC wrote, “Based on the information provided and follow-up discussions with representatives of the city, and the district, it is our opinion that the city is in a better position to extend sewer service to the proposed Route 33 (West) South (side) project area.”
According to the email, in another paragraph, Acord also wrote that, “… it is our opinion that the city is in a better position to extend to the limited scope (approximately nine new customers) Route 33 West [north side] area.”
“I think it means two things,” O’Neill told council. “It clarifies that we have the right to do this immediately. We have in place all or virtually all of the rights-of-way necessary to construct this line, we have the authority of the Sanitary Sewer Board to expend up to $100,000 on the project and we have a plan in place to recover the balance of the construction costs through two different surcharges – a $50 per month flat rate and then a $3 per thousand gallon surcharge.”
Since September, a string of meetings have taken place regarding what entity – the City of Buckhannon or the Tennerton Public Service District – will extend sanitary sewer service along the north and south sides of Route 33, west of Buckhannon. During the course of discussions, the commission approved an order that, if OK’ed by the PSC, would extend the current boundaries of Tennerton PSD, allowing it to serve commercial customers along Route 33 West.
In response, city officials vehemently defended what they say has been the city’s utility territory since the mid-1990s – and McCauley even suggested the city might take legal action to preserve its territory.
At Thursday’s meeting, O’Neill said the PSC’s guidance was “almost everything we could have hoped for in a decision.”
“What this letter tells me is that even if the county commission continues down the road that it is currently on, we still have the right to lay this line – both of these lines,” he said. “The question now is, how will the county commission respond to this? Will they seek a formal process?”
Upshur County Administrator Carrie Wallace on Monday said the commissioners had received the PSC’s opinion but would not comment on it until Jan. 9, 2019 – the date of their next regular meeting.
“The public hearing will continue as scheduled,” Wallace said Monday.
That’s the same day the commission has scheduled a public hearing on the extension of the Tennerton PSD’s boundaries at 6 p.m. in the Upshur County Courthouse. The Tennerton PSD’s engineering firm, The Thrasher Group, has said undertaking the projects could result in a 25 percent rate increase for all Tennerton PSD customers.
McCauley said the informal opinion should end all debate.
“It can’t be any more clearly stated that this is Buckhannon’s territory, and we intend to pursue our projects in our territory,” he said. “This should be the end of this matter.”
In related news, a proposed agreement between the city, J.F. Allen Company and two other commercial developers has hit a road bump after two developers declined to participate in the project. The project involves J.F. Allen constructing main line water and sanitary sewer extensions on the south side of Route 33 West and then deeding the lines over to the city.
McCauley told council that J.F. Allen, which had been represented by project manager Tyler Beaty at the Sanitary Board meeting earlier that day, was still on board.
“Had the other developers agreed to the MOU that was submitted to them 10 days ago, this project would have been a done deal,” the mayor said at council’s Dec. 19 meeting. “We’ve got to retool the MOU because J.F. Allen still wants to participate, and it’s going to be a ‘go’ for both the north and south side projects.”
Although no agreement has yet been reached, city officials and J.F. Allen representatives have discussed the city building a sanitary sewer main line along the north side and financing it through a surcharge – or charge on top of a regular monthly utility bill – for the commercial customers served.