Task force hopes to speed progress on waterline extension
Washington County's Water Task Force is developing a new strategy for bringing utility water to unserved parts of the county, and it made waves at a recent regional water assessment workshop hosted by First District Congressman Phil Roe's office.
At Roe's request, Washington County representatives presented the strategy — designed to speed the funding of water projects throughout the county — to a group of officials from the First District's 12 counties at a meeting in Kingsport Feb. 25. Roe hopes to see the basic model developed by Washington County adopted across the district so he can effectively promote the district's water needs at the federal level.
The objective, Water Task Force Chairman Joe Grandy said, is to make utility water available to unserved areas in the quickest, most cost-efficient way possible through an objective, data-driven strategy, utilizing multiple funding sources. That strategy includes a new funding model to complement grant programs already in place, as well as a method for identifying, studying and ranking each unserved area of the county.
The new plan, which is still in the development stage, met with a very positive response from Congressman Roe. The Republican from Johnson City is encouraging counties throughout his district to build databases that identify and prioritize their water and sewer needs.
“We're spending roughly $1 million a year on each soldier serving in Afghanistan, yet we've got communities throughout the First District where people don't have access to reliable, clean utility water,” Roe said.
“I don't begrudge our efforts overseas, but we're the wealthiest country in the world, and it borders on shameful that so many of our citizens lack this basic necessity.”
Roe said Washington County's strategy could provide a model for the district, and armed with good information, his office can push for a federal commitment to assist with funding of the water needs across the region.
“There are certainly plenty of worthy interests vying for federal funding,” Roe added. “But if our government is willing to fund projects based on merit, need and objective data, this kind of approach should pay off for the region in the long run.”
Washington County's plan will use data collected through GIS mapping, information gathered from local utilities, and other sources to complete a database of all sections of county road (estimated to be more than 130 miles) without water service. That information should make it easier for traditional funding partners, such as First Tennessee Development District and USDA Rural Development, to know which areas are most likely to be eligible for grants.
That grant process has helped bring water to some areas of Washington County over the past few decades, but only slowly, Water Task Force Chairman Joe Grandy said. That's why he hopes the Washington County Commission will seriously consider a new funding model that could speed those efforts to expand water availability.
“The task force has developed a way to work with our utility providers and help them amortize the cost of these expansion projects,” Grandy said. “This will make particularly good sense in areas with the potential for residential or commercial growth, because as that growth takes place, new customers help a project pay for itself and that reduces the county's obligation.”
Fellow task force member Pat Wolfe, who is serving his fourth term representing the rural Ninth District, agreed.
“I have been on different committees over the past 40 years that have worked to extend utility water lines in Washington County with moderate success,” Wolfe said. “This new financing idea can be very positive for future expansions. I also think that there is renewed interest in expanding utility lines to needed areas by our new County Mayor.”
The utilities that serve most of the county — Johnson City, Jonesborough and Kingsport — are on board with the idea. It could get a test run in the Double Springs Road and Lady Lane area of Fall Branch, where finances are the main impediment to a three-mile long waterline project that nearly four dozen residents have been waiting on for several years.
“We're in the business of providing water, and if it makes economic sense for us we're always happy to expand our system,” Kingsport Public Works Director Ryan McReynolds said. Kingsport could get the Fall Branch started within several months if the financial plan works out, and it's something McReynolds said he'd like to see.
“It's particularly gratifying when we're able to expand and serve an area that has needed utility water and hasn't had access to it before,” McReynolds said.
Washington County Commissioner Ben Bowman couldn't agree more. He's been helping Jerry Chatman and other constituents in Fall Branch keep the faith, and keep the pressure on, for the past several years.
“I really believe with this project being so close to the Interstate (I-81 at exit 50) it's going to be successful if we move forward, and the area will grow and pay dividends for the county,” said Bowman, who is one of three commissioners on the Water Task Force, along with Grandy and Wolfe.
“I think it's going to be a great thing for the county and for the people in that area of Fall Branch.”