Elizabethton City Council extends water obligation

John Thompson • Apr 13, 2012 at 6:16 AM

ELIZABETHTON — By the barest of majorities, the Elizabethton City Council voted to extend its obligations with the Watauga River Regional Water Authority by another 10 years, going from the original 20 years to 30.

The extension was part of a move to provide the final source of funding for the stalled construction on the WRRWA water plant at Wilbur Lake. Because the bonds that were issued for the project were for 30 years, the bond counsel demanded the city’s agreement to purchase 300,000 gallons of water a day had to be extended to the life of the bonds.

Mayor Curt Alexander, and Councilmen William Carter, Richard Sammons and Richard Tester voted for the new agreement. Vice Mayor Sam Shipley, Councilwoman Nancy Alsup and Councilman Charles LaPorte opposed the extension.

The vote was a surprise because Sammons has long been a critic of the city’s association with the water authority, saying there is a large amount of ground water the city could tap into.

After the meeting, Sammons said he has seen the water authority “begin to take on a life of its own. I believe it is going to be a good thing in the long run.” He said only time will tell whether it was a good decision, “but I believe it is the right move.”

Sammons recently retired after a successful career as an accountant. When asked if the $5 million the city has already spent on the water project had any bearing on his decision, he said “it had to. There is no way around it.”

LaPorte was disappointed in the result. He said the city should not have a 30-year commitment with any organization.

“Not with TVA, not with anyone. We can’t get out of this for 30 years. We have no recourse. We don’t do that for anybody,” LaPorte said.

LaPorte said if the agreement had been voted down, the water authority would simply have been forced to seek 20-year bonds at a higher interest rate. He said the city’s sacrificed its freedom of action for a lower interest rate.

Alexander said he thought the agreement was dead and was surprised by Sammons’ vote.

“I am so appreciative of Councilman Sammons. I want to commend him. I know he did not do this for us. He did it for our children and grandchildren,” Alexander said.

WRRWA Chairman Johnny Mills did not attend the critical session, but he called the council’s move “the final piece of the puzzle” for the water project. He said the final member of the water authority, South Elizabethton Utility District, was waiting for the city’s decision before deciding on its future commitment to the authority. He felt confident South Elizabethton will now be on board.

“This will put the construction workers back to work. I understand it takes about 30 days for the bonds to be ready to sell, but they are so attractive they will probably be snapped up before they reach the market,” Mills said.

The extension was required by the bond counsel for a 30-year Waterworks Revenue Bonds, which would provide $6.7 million the water authority is seeking in order to complete construction on a 2-million-gallon water plant at Wilbur Lake. The plant is about 85 percent complete but work is stopped because of the unexpected loss of a federal grant.

Other matters went smoothly, including a first reading of an ordinace banning the sale of synthetic marijuana and bath salts in the city. While the state Legislature is preparing a bill to outlaw the substances, the city’s action provides a ban on the sale of the legal substances.

An empty chair was placed at the center of the council in honor of former Mayor Pat “Red” Bowers, who died on Saturday. Bowers served on the council for 17 years, the longest term in its history. Alexander proclaimed today as Pat “Red” Bowers Day in Elizabethton.

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