Staff: Boone needs lobbyists for water issues
by Anna Oakes
Boone Town Council members on Monday discussed the town's $168,000 annual allocation for one federal and two state lobbyists, opting to continue the contracts for now.
Town Manager Greg Young shifted $118,000 in funding for lobbyists from the town's General Fund to the Water and Sewer Fund in his proposed budget for 2013-2014. The Water and Sewer Fund was already contributing $50,000 for lobbyists' fees.
"As long as we have the water (intake) project active, we need to have the lobbyists, and as long as it's water related, it can come out of the Water and Sewer Fund," Young said at a May 31 council meeting.
Council members questioned the continued need for lobbyists during budget discussions during the past month.
Young said the lobbyists have helped the town with legislative issues, grant funding and issues related to the town's planned water intake on the South Fork New River near Todd.
"I'm guess I'm not as clear what the future anticipated needs are," Mason said at a budget workshop Monday.
But council members agreed to hear from the town's lobbyists before making a decision on continuing their contracts.
"I think we do need to have a conversation with them more often than we are now," said Councilman Andy Ball. "I think it's been a year and a half since we've had them up here at a meeting."
The town has planned for a new water source since 2005. The planned intake would draw up to 4 million gallons per day from the South Fork New River and transport the water to town via lines along Brownwood Road and U.S. 421. The project survived a legislative effort by Rep. Jonathan Jordan in 2012 to prohibit new regulations required for the project, but it continues to face challenges. The town is currently acquiring right of way for the transmission line route.
In 2008, 73 percent of Boone voters approved a $25 million bond referendum to finance a new intake. The town has secured a $20.5 million loan and $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund the project and has spent about $1 million to date in engineering and other costs, Young said earlier this year.
"It's probably going to exceed that now," Public Utilities Director Rick Miller said at a June 11 Water Use Committee meeting, referring to the $25 million figure.
The Water Use Committee has discussed the water intake project at three meetings since March, with members questioning whether the town should continue pursuing the project in light of legislative and other challenges.
Committee member Pam Williamson said she worried about the state legislature's vote to take away the city of Asheville's control over its water system and about other proposed legislative bills leaning toward regionalization of water systems.
"I think we're going to lose the water facility if we build it," Williamson said.
But other committee members said the town would still have a need for additional water, regardless of who may control facilities in the future.