Aqua deal

At the beginning of the evening, Aqua Virginia president Shannon Becker and attorney Darvin Satterwhite presented to the Board an eloquent sales pitch for the proposed deal.  Satterwhite reminded the Board that the recent return on investment (ROI) study suggests that the Zion Crossroads area may be losing money due to a lack of water infrastructure.  He then referenced another water deal with the Department of Corrections (DOC) that would provide the area with 75,000 GPD of treated water – a deal that is sometimes touted as a more “moderate” solution to the area’s water woes.  But Satterwhite warned the Board that potential businesses would not look favorably upon such a “limited” supply.  “It’s barely enough to meet their fire suppression needs, [let alone] business needs,” he stated.  He then went on to assure the Board that Aqua has enough water capacity to meet Fluvanna’s projected needs for over four decades to come.

Fluvanna County Attorney Fred Payne then took a turn explaining to the Board his issues with two of the five contracts that, taken together, comprise the Aqua deal.  Both of the contracts in question are unconstitutional, he stated, in that they call for long-term debt that legally cannot be established without a referendum.  Although certain exceptions apply, Payne was clear that in his mind, these exceptions do not apply to the Aqua contracts.  “This is a very serious problem,” he warned.

Payne also raised questions with the enforceability of the contracts, stating that they call for “approximately” 150,000 GPD of sewerage when the DOC can only commit to providing 100,000 GPD, with a possible 25,000 GPD in reserve.  Lastly, he found the contracts imprudent, citing their requirement that the county provide commitments for water hook-ups in the amount of 120,000 GPD right off the bat.  He found such volume highly unlikely.  In his conclusion, he declared, “In my judgment these contracts do not protect the interests of the county and its citizens.  They seek to shift essentially all the risk of various problems…onto the county… I cannot approve these.”

In response, Satterwhite agreed readily with some of Payne’s specific issues, replying in part that he would be glad to modify the contract to call for 125,000 GPD of sewerage rather than 150,000 GPD.  “If these are the elements that separate us, they are not insurmountable… They’re things that could be corrected so easily,” he affirmed.

Payne was not so easily convinced, given that he and Satterwhite have gone back and forth on these contracts with disagreements still remaining, and that he has been told more than once that he is working with final, non-flexible, drafts.  According to Payne, each time he and Satterwhite resolved one issue to his satisfaction, another, previously nonexistent, issue arose.  “I’ve never had a negotiation where it was such a moving target,” he declared.

Realizing that at some point the Board needs to be able to accept or reject a finalized agreement, Chairman Shaun Kenney stepped in and requested an absolutely final draft to be ready by the Oct. 2 meeting.

Of the 16 residents who participated in the public hearing, two spoke in favor of economic development in general, but no one voiced outright support for the Aqua proposal.  Rather, 14 residents were outspoken in their opposition to the plan.  Some focused on Aqua Virginia’s dismal popularity amongst its current customers in Lake Monticello and objected to the idea of paying more money to, as Julia Whiting put it, a company with a national “strategy of aggressive acquisitions and drastic rate increases.”  Others voiced concerns about the fact that two of the three water-advocating supervisors have only a few months left in their terms of office, and looked unfavorably upon what they saw as attempts to rush this matter through before the end of the year.  Candidate for Rivanna district supervisor Rick Kelly compared this to “leav[ing] behind Fluvanna like Sherman left Atlanta.”

Candidate for Columbia district supervisor Elizabeth Franklin called the Board’s attention to significant extra costs beyond the $20 million price tag, including multi-million dollar lateral lines that Fluvanna would be responsible for constructing off of Aqua’s main trunk line, and a theoretical $20 million sewer treatment plant that may need to be constructed once the DOC’s sewerage capacity has been met.  Dennis Holder summed it up by saying, “I think this is a really strange deal when we borrow the money from them and pay them a lot of interest, higher than the market, to buy something for them.”

Then came the fireworks.  Supervisor Bob Ullenbruch discussed the fact that the ROI still contains placeholders, not actual figures, and therefore doesn’t lead to meaningful conclusions about the fiscal benefits of water at Zion Crossroads.  But, he asserted, some members of the Board don’t care about that and are determined to “stuff this through” before the end of their terms.  Speaking to the crowd, he said, “In the need to get this done before Jan. 1, this Board, by majority, is going to…roll the dice with your money to make this decision before the next election, because they’re afraid that the next group of individuals that are on this Board are going to side with the majority of people in this county – God help us if we ever did that – and knock down this contract.  Plus, it’s been told to me that this is going to get stuffed through before the next election because members of this Board are tired of waiting and this is a legacy…”  He concluded by listing several people, one by one, each of whom thinks “this is not a good deal.”

“Baby Jesus could tell you this was a good deal and you wouldn’t believe it,” Kenney commented, and the crowd flew into an uproar.

Angered, Ullenbruch started shouting.  “I’ve been threatened, been threatened, by a member of this Board, that he will vote for another project that’s coming up in a month if I didn’t vote for the water, because I ‘lied’ to him.  And I’m getting shouted down here because I don’t agree with the chair of this Board… This is your show,” he said, speaking to Kenney.  “You know, you snicker, you laugh, you demean people – I’ve had it!  I’ve had it.  This is way too important.”  And with that, the crowd burst into applause.

Kenney responded by framing the issue as a choice on Fluvanna’s part: whether or not to grow.  “For seven years we had to hear about how there was nothing growing at Zion Crossroads and therefore there was no reason why Fluvanna County should duplicate the process.  Then all of a sudden you got the economic development at Zion Crossroads, and then we heard, ‘Well, you know, we’ll never be able to do the same.’… We know we have nibbles of economic development and we know that they’re telling us no for one reason and one reason alone, and it’s not our tax rate.  It’s because we don’t have basic infrastructure.”  And to the criticism that he and Chesser should leave water alone because their terms end soon, he replied, “I took an oath of office, took it Jan. 1 and it expires Dec. 31, 2013, and not a moment before.”

Supervisor Don Weaver then asked, “I’m wondering why some people want this system almost at any cost?”  He went on to state that if the county plans to spend $20 million on water, he’d rather see it go into building a Fluvanna pipeline off the proposed James River pipeline junction.  The Aqua deal, he claimed, “is a loser – just ask the two people [Payne and County Administrator Steve Nichols] who have put in more time on this than anybody sitting up here.”  Concluding his remarks, he said, “I’ve never [before] seen a contract that I feel so strongly about and that I feel so helpless about.”

In response, Supervisor Joe Chesser declared that he would, in fact, have liked to bring the James River pipeline up Rt. 15, but saw that the county “would never agree” to spend the $20 or $30 million that such an endeavor would cost.  Though he noted that nothing is wrong with what he termed “the country boy life,” he warned that citizens clinging to such an approach will see both increased taxes to pay for county services and decreased property values.  “I’d like to see the contract happen,” he stated, “but if the legal issues aren’t resolved, I won’t vote for it.  That’s all.”

Then Supervisor Mozell Booker spoke, informing the Board that by the time her term comes to an end in two years, she is “determined that we will have [water] infrastructure at Zion Crossroads.”  She is loath to once again pass off the decision to a new Board after the election, for the effort and depth of knowledge exhibited by “this Board” equips it better than any other to make the call.

“Let’s be frank, since Aqua’s here,” Ullenbruch rejoined.  “Industry does not produce the need for the amount of water that we’re talking about [120,000 GPD right off the bat].  It’s residences.  Residences use more water than industry… You need those residences to build up your gallons per day so that these ROI figures come true and there’s a profit.”  But with residences come people, children, and the elderly, and the corresponding need for services increases.  Thus, “every time you make a dollar, two dollars comes back in need of something.”  Finally, he referenced citizen Amy Taylor’s speech from earlier in the evening, which stated that her family owns 90 acres of land at Zion Crossroads and will never sell to developers.  Explaining that he has spoken to others like her, he warned that the ROI presupposes that land will be free for development.  “We don’t own the land!” he reminded the Board.

But Kenney responded that the spiral of increased taxes and decreased services needs to stop somehow.  “You hear the voices in the county that say that the solution to that [spiral] is not to, gee, maybe wake up and chase economic development, but to scale back further.  How much more are you going to cut?  Where’s it going to come from?… There’s nothing left!  Where else are you going to squeeze?”

With that, Chesser moved to delay for 30 days any decision on the Aqua deal.  The only other alternative would have been to kill the deal outright there and then.  With Ullenbruch and Weaver dissenting, the motion passed 3-2.

The state-mandated 30-day waiting period will not have elapsed before the supervisors’ Oct. 16 meeting, so the vote will take place either on Nov. 6 or during a special session called for that purpose.

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