Guilford commission drives hard bargain with city on water/sewer funds

Commissioner Paul Gibson speaks to a Lynwood Lakes resident opposed to water and sewer service.

The Guilford County Commission’s 9-1 vote on Thursday to extend water and sewer service to more than 200 households in the Lynwood Lakes area of southeast Guilford upholds a commitment to the community made by the board several years ago and addresses longstanding reports of failing septic systems and bacterial contamination.

The commission also voted to extend water and sewer to the neighboring Forest Oaks Estates area. Dozens of residents from the two unincorporated areas applauded the decision.

“After it rains, I could take you to houses where there’s sewage bubbling out of the ground,” said Keith Hobson, a 30-year resident of Lynwood Lakes, after the vote. “Nobody wants to drink water that’s bad.”

The project comes at a significant cost: an estimated $8.4 million, according to interim Planning Director Betty Garrett. County Manager Brenda Jones Fox said after bond funds are spent, the Lynwood Lakes project still leaves the county with a deficit of $3.4 million. Drawing from the general fund to close the gap would translate to a tax increase of about 1 cent, Fox said. With a tax increase already projected for the coming year, the commissioners were not willing to consider adding Lynwood Lakes to the burden.

Instead they voted to draw from what’s left in a joint water and sewer fund that the county and the city of Greensboro agreed to dissolve to cover the gap. That decision shifts some of the cost of services to unincorporated residents to the city and could potentially complicate a tentative agreement between the city and county to invest in water and sewer services to promote economic development in eastern Guilford.

To add an additional wrinkle, the commission took a second vote on Thursday based on a motion by Commissioner Carolyn Coleman to participate in the eastern Guilford economic development project “contingent” on the city of Greensboro supporting the Lynwood Lakes project.

After the vote, Fox told reporters that the motion specifically conditioned county participation in the economic development project on the city covering half of the cost of extending water to Phase 1 of Lynwood Lakes at a total cost of $1.4 million with the city picking up the tab for $700,000.

In January, Mayor Robbie Perkins proposed to the county commission that county and city each contribute $11 million towards the economic development project. As an incentive to the county, Perkins and County Commission Chairman Skip Alston had worked out a tentative agreement that $2 million from the dissolved joint water and sewer fund could be spent to extend water and sewer to Forest Oaks Estates.

“We did have an agreement,” at-large Commissioner Paul Gibson said during a break in Thursday’s meeting. “That was a good project. We take $3.4 million out of the trust fund. Give the city $9 million. If they’re not happy with that, that’s their problem.”

The county commission’s vote sent city officials scrambling to figure out the financial implications. After conferring with Fox on Friday, interim City Manager Denise Turner Roth indicated in an e-mail this morning that after factoring in Lynwood Lakes, the remaining amount available for the economic development project is $16.7 million. Emphasizing that the numbers are tentative until city staff has an opportunity to reconcile its accounts with the county, Roth indicated that the city’s contribution would be $9.2 million while the county’s share would be $7.5 million.

City and county officials will likely have to keep talking to reconcile accounts considering that Fox told reporters that the county’s contribution after factoring in Forest Oaks and Lynwood Lakes would be $9.7 million. County and city officials also differ on how much money is in the fund, with the city pegging the figure at $23 million and the county indicating $25 million.

It also remains unclear whether reducing funding for the economic development project from $22 million to $16.7 million will compromise the project, which is expected to extend water and sewer service to 9,000 acres in eastern Guilford County. Perkins and other local leaders want to make the investment because they believe it will attract data centers that would be able to take advantage of the area’s superior access to major highways and electrical power but would be limited considering that water and sewer infrastructure is expected to be at capacity once an American Express data center comes online.

Roth said in a memo to council in December that the city’s “goal is to increase the capacity of the Rock Creek, Stewart Mill and Young’s Mill sewer basins by upgrading the pump stations and sewer mains.”

The decision to extend water and sewer service to Lynwood Lakes is not universally supported by residents. One resident submitted a petition indicating that a significant number of residents are opposed, but commissioners questioned whether it was biased. A decisive majority of residents present at the meeting expressed by a show of hands that they favored the investment.

Commissioners considered providing water and sewer service to only part of Lynwood Lakes, but then decided it would be more cost-efficient to tackle the project all at once. Commissioner Kirk Perkins warned residents that if the county fails to act now the funds won't be available for modernization in the future.

Residents of both Lynwood Lakes and Forest Oaks Estates will have a five-year abeyance on assessments. After that, they will have an additional five years to pay assessments based on the frontage of their property with a 5 percent interest rate. Public hearings for both projects are scheduled for March 1.


triadwatch said...

looks like a big cat and mouse game on this water and sewer money it is absurd

Jordan Green said...

It would be much simpler if Guilford County and Greensboro governments were merged, but then where would High Point and the other municipalities be? I believe that water and sewer service is a vital need for the residents of Lynwood Lakes and Forest Oaks, but it's not really fair to pass on the cost to Greensboro, which won't be able to cover its costs through annexation anytime soon. And there's no denying that this is another case of subsidizing sprawl, but how can you turn your back on people with sewage bubbling up through their lawns?