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Fledgling Greene County Water & Sewer drowning in debt, customer complaints

When it rains, it pours, and the storm is not letting up for the Greene County Water & Sewer Department.

Since withdrawing from the Rapidan Service Authority less than a year ago, the county-run service has incurred more than $20 million in debt — and it has proposed initiatives that could increase that figure eightfold.

Greene County residents have complained of paying “an outrageous amount of money,” often hundreds of dollars more than they previously paid under the Rapidan Service Authority, for water bills that arrive months late with inaccurate meter readings.

The department’s first director, Greg Lunsford, quit within a few months of his hiring. His successor, Alan Harrison, stepped down April 5. An interim director, Dave Hundelt, has been on the job for less than a week.

The county’s infrastructure is failing, and water mains now break with a regularity that is worrying many residents and businesses.

The day before Harrison’s departure the county issued its second boil-water advisory in six months after a pipe burst in the Ruckersville area.

The county is in need of an umbrella. Or a lifeboat.

Greene County supervisors acknowledge that the administration made a mistake in abandoning the Rapidan Service Authority and attempting to strike out on its own.

“If we don’t change course, we’re on course with an iceberg, and we’re the Titanic,” Supervisor Francis McGuigan told The Daily Progress.

In July 2020, Greene County’s supervisors passed a resolution requesting the county’s release from the Rapidan Service Authority, a regional water utility company organized in 1969 to service the counties of Orange, Madison and Greene. After three years of legal battles and meetings, the Virginia Resources Authority and State Corporation Commission approved Greene County’s withdrawal in June and granted the municipality the right to create its own water and sewer department.

Less than a year later, the Greene County Water & Sewer seems to be floundering in the deep end, unable to keep afloat or to touch bottom.

“I understand the rate complaint, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in this decision to pull out of RSA,” said McGuigan. He said the board receives at least two to three water-related complaints from residents every week. “The cat is out of the bag. It wasn’t a decision I made, and it’s counter to what most experts in this field believe: A small municipality, because of the economies of scale, should not be attempting to have a water authority on its own.”

Why the board of supervisors fought to be released from the Rapidan Service Authority is unclear, as are the reasons why customers have seen their water rates increase by 150% since the departure.

“The stuff they come up with for reasons why don’t even make sense,” Greene County resident Tim Rombach told The Daily Progress. “I think the bill is bogus.”

Rombach has penned several letters to the county and spoken with supervisors and other county leaders on several occasions. He also spoke out during the public comment portion of the board of supervisors’ March 26 meeting.

“If the board was concerned about water rates, they never would have left RSA to start with,” Rombach said.

Though the issue was not on the board’s March 26 agenda, Rombach told The Daily Progress that during a one-on-one conversation with a supervisor he was told that the problem is the federal government: Washington hasn’t approved a budget that would allocate funds to support the county’s newly formed department.

“You mean to tell me I’m going to need to keep overpaying my water bill because the federal government can’t get their s–t together?” asked Rombach.

After pulling out of the Rapidan Service Authority, the county took control of the company’s assets and its ongoing projects in the area, which included several plans to construct new water mains and storage tanks as well as replace Stanardsville’s water treatment plant, transmission lines and aging iron water pipes.

Though the water authority’s parting gift included a one-time cash payment of $1.35 million to fulfill the authority’s monetary obligation to the county, a temporary spike in customers’ rates was to be expected as the county transitioned to building up and operating its own service. However, the fact that bills continue to be significantly higher than what residents were paying the Rapidan Service Authority is cause for concern, said McGuigan.

“I have a feeling that everyone is going to wind up having to pay more for water as a result no matter what,” he said.

McGuigan added the county is still setting the budget to address various capital projects.

One such undertaking is upgrading all of the pipes in Stanardsville that have been prone to leaks. The town suffered a water main break in December prompting government offices to close and the Greene County Public School district to end classes early for the day. Replacing the Stanardsville water lines will cost the county an estimated $25 million, according to McGuigan.

Updates to an aging water treatment plant could cost another $40 million to $50 million.

On top of repairs, the board of supervisors is also considering what’s been christened the White Run Reservoir Water Impoundment Project.

The project, first brought before the county board in 2008, would establish a reservoir along White Run, an offshoot of the Rapidan River that runs along U.S. Route 29 south of Burtonville. The reservoir would supplement the county’s water supply and serve as an emergency water source.

In 2008, the cost of the reservoir was pegged at $20 million. McGuigan said the price tag is now closer to $100 million.

“You’re talking about $170 million worth of debt for 21,000 residents, two-thirds of which don’t even use the public water,” he said. “It’s a massive public works project that they technically don’t have a vested interest in.”

“We need a better solution than the one we have on paper,” added McGuigan, who wants to see a moratorium on any capital projects until the county brings in an outside expert to review and provide a new cost assessment for the plans.

McGuigan has his own ideas. He pitched using the Greene Mountain Lake in Stanardsville as an emergency water source during a drought, given it’s only a quarter-mile from a water main and would require very little work to transition.

“For a small county, that’s a much more logical and economic approach. Unfortunately, our leadership and county executives have bought into the reservoir as a solution, and it’s going to be a very costly solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist,” said McGuigan.

One problem that really exists: Inaccurate meter readings mean Greene County water customers are getting overcharged.

Water meters measure exactly how many gallons of water a customer has used so a water company can determine how much is owed at the end of each month, or every 40 days in Greene County. Rombach said that, according to his Greene County Water & Sewer bills, he and his wife are using more water today than they did when their children still lived with them.

He has also noticed that instead of precise figures, his meter readings are “always hitting the 100 mark.”

It’s enough for Rombach rethink his decision to quit playing the lottery.

On a more serious note, Rombach said he is considering taking a leaf out of Greene County’s book and leaving the water service behind. He’s looked into digging a residential water well, which Rombach said is estimated to cost around $2,500. The final costs for digging and installing a well, along with a septic tank, would likely be closer to $10,000, but the smaller price tag is a little easier to swallow for Rombach.

“Your service is useless to me, I’d be better off in a year [with a well] than paying your erratic fees,” said Rombach, referring to the Greene County Water & Sewer Department.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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