Pittsboro accepts ‘distressed’ community designation

Board votes unanimously to move forward with N.C. Viable Utility program

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PITTSBORO — The town’s board of commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to become a part of North Carolina’s Viable Utility program, which could provide Pittsboro with grant money — potentially in the millions — to help address issues with its water and wastewater infrastructure challenges.

Town Manager Chris Kennedy and Mayor Cindy Perry received a letter from the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality on June 21, stating its water quality department concluded Pittsboro was considered a “distressed community” in regard to its water and wastewater capacity.

The Viable Utility program “provides funding to build a path toward viable utility systems using long-term solutions for distressed water and wastewater units in North Carolina,” according to the NCDEQ website.

A distressed unit is defined to be “a public water system or wastewater system operated by a local government unit exhibiting signs of failure to identify or address those financial or operating needs necessary to enable that system to become or to remain a local government unit generating sufficient revenues to adequately fund management and operations, personnel, appropriate levels of maintenance, and reinvestment that facilitate the provision of reliable water or wastewater services.”

During Monday’s regular board meeting, commissioners were mostly supportive in moving forward with the acceptance of the designation, since it could lead to the town receiving additional funds to help address shortcomings in the municipal wastewater facility’s capacity.

But some unanswered questions from Monday’s discussion prompted the commissioners to call for, and hold, a special meeting Thursday after — which provided time for Kennedy to contact Susan Kubaki of NCDEQ to get additional information for commissioners.

“I sent her 13 questions on behalf of the town and board and sought feedback from those,” Kennedy said during Thursday’s special meeting. “There’ll be a conversation of sorts, if needed, and then ultimately, action or action by inaction on a potential resolution for the board, to declare ourselves a distressed utility.”

Commissioners originally had questions regarding the distressed designation and whether it would bring a negative stigma to the town. But according to an email sent by Kubaki to the town, the designation simply allows for the town to become involved in the Viable Utility program.

“I thought one of her (Kubaki’s) more poignant answers was that the state is trying to take the stigma away from being labeled, such that they really want to inject resources with grant funding in the millions of dollars,” Kennedy said. “They want to see this as a positive — they want to take away the negative perspective of being called distressed. It’s more of an injection of resources and support to allow us to potentially better run a utility.”

After receiving the state’s explanation, commissioners began to feel more comfortable with voting in favor of the distressed designation.

“I read all of her answers, and those answers were sufficient,” Mayor Pro Tem Pamela Baldwin said on Thursday. “They were definitely in response to a lot of the concerns I had, so I am pleased with the answers that she provided.”

Perry, though, still some questions. She said the only negative aspect of the designation was the unclear timeline for when the water utility would be seen as viable.

Kennedy said he believed that question cannot be answered since the Viable Utility program has only been active for two years.

“If it had been enacted in 1986, I think I’d have more concerns about why no one had been removed from that label,” he said. “But I suspect anybody who received that letter, maybe last year or the year before, is still working through some of these issues, working with the state … As we are trying to carve our path and be more creative and more solution oriented, I hope we can be one of those success stories that gets on and gets off as expeditiously as possible so others can follow our path.”

The board asked Kennedy to send a letter accepting the designation to NCDEQ. Commissioner Kyle Shipp said he was excited for what this program could mean for the future of Pittsboro’s water and wastewater infrastructure as the community continues to grow.

“I agree with Commissioner Baldwin,” he said. “I appreciate them getting us the answers back so quickly on the questions, and I think this is a unique opportunity for us.”

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com and on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.

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