By Debbie Adams
Vinton Mayor Brad Grose announced what he described as a “momentous decision” at the December 7 Town Council meeting.
“This council has agreed that the time is right to transition ownership and operation of the Vinton Water and Wastewater System to the Western Virginia Water Authority (WVWA) as of July 1, 2022. The decision being announced tonight has not been reached lightly and has been many years in the making,” said Grose. “With the desire to continue to provide the highest quality product, at the lowest possible cost, it has become apparent that it is in the best interests of our current and future customers to make this necessary move.
“The town has recently celebrated many redevelopment successes; although, there remains much work to be done,” Grose continued. “The transfer of our water system will provide the town the flexibility for a more focused approach to additional community development and revitalization efforts that will continue to move Vinton forward.
“These include a more robust paving program, replacement of our traffic signals and increased pedestrian accommodations to include new crosswalks and sidewalks. Also, the upgrading of our stormwater management facilities, neighborhood revitalization, and corridor and gateway enhancements are all needed improvements that will result in a better quality of life,” the mayor said. “These advancements will simply be more attainable for Vinton after tonight’s action.”
Grose noted that many details associated with the transfer of ownership remain to be worked out over the next six months, “however, this council has listened to our citizens and customers, and we are pleased to take this necessary step forward.”
Grose praised the town leaders who made the initial decision years ago to create a water system for the town—the “right thing to do at the time,” he said. “Their decision resulted in tremendous residential and commercial growth in eastern Roanoke County and provided financial stability for Vinton for decades. But now it’s time to go in a different direction.”
Town Clerk Susan Johnson read the Resolution of Intent which council adopted to begin formal discussions with the WVWA to develop a “mutually beneficial comprehensive agreement to finalize the authority’s acquisition of the town’s utility system.”
The town invited several guests involved with the project to attend and speak, including Board of Supervisors Chairman Jason Peters, who represents Vinton on the board, WVWA Executive Director Mike McEvoy, former Mayor Don Davis ,who currently serves on the WVWA board, and Roanoke County Administrator Dan O’Donnell.
Jason Peters noted that the decision had been “in the works for a long time.” The town and county have partnered successfully on a number of joint projects, “doing so many great things together rather than individually.” Since the number one priority of both parties is “service to citizens” the transfer of the water/wastewater system to the WVWA will ensure that utility issues won’t be a “hindrance” in projects to come.
In an interview, Peters commented that when he ran for re-election in 2017, the water system and water quality were the topics of most concern to his constituents. He lives in the Lindenwood area, which is in need of many, most likely costly, infrastructure repairs and upgrades.
Davis, who has served on the WVWA board since 2006, commented that he has been encouraging the partnership between town, county, and WVWA for 15 years. He believes economic development should be the main focus of the town; transferring the water/wastewater system to the WVWA will allow the town to focus on those priorities.
McEvoy thanked Town Council for their “vote of confidence” in the WVWA, commending Town Manager Pete Peters and his staff for their diligence, dedication, and contributions in putting this proposal together.
In early November, Pete Peters wrote to McEvoy noting that the 1979 Water Agreement between the town and county, in which the town provides water and sewer services to its own residents and the East County area, is set to expire on May 25, 2029. All physical assets related to the utility system’s operation that remain in Roanoke County will defer back to Roanoke County’s ownership. Upon expiration of the agreement, the loss of the wells, storage tanks, pumps, and water lines, will effectively eliminate the town’s ability to operate any of the remaining water system located within the town limits.
The town initially inquired about the county extending the agreement past the 2029 date, due in part to the town receiving ARPA funding which would be designated for water and sewer improvements—many of them in East County. At that point, Supervisor Peters and county administrators steered the discussion in a different direction, asking the town and county to consider other options. Preliminary discussions have taken place in closed sessions over the past several months.
According to the town manager, the town wanted to be proactive and continue to provide a good system for its customers, and at affordable rates. However, the town’s system is deteriorating at almost a faster rate than it can be replaced. Rates would most likely have to increase to finance continual repairs. Debt would need to be taken on.
In addition, the Public Works Department, which maintains and operates the utility system, is stretched thin.
“Currently, if repairs become necessary, say there’s a water line break, it’s ‘all hands on deck’ – other projects go on the back burner,” said Peters. “At times, we must make the decision to interrupt repairs for snow removal.”
Another factor is the need for a stable and high-quality water supply with so much new industry and so many new businesses in the town—and the desire to attract more.
“The financial impact of the imminent termination of the 1979 Water Agreement with Roanoke County and the current availability of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for water and waste-water improvements has created a confluence of opportunities to better position the town and the broader East Roanoke County community for a prosperous future,” he noted.
In his letter, Pete Peters stated, “The Town of Vinton hereby proposes to sell all water and waste-water assets and real property associated with the Vinton/East County Utility System to the Western Virginia Water Authority (Authority), forego the remaining seven years of the 1979 agreement with Roanoke County and discontinue all further operations of the water and waste-water utility within the town limits effective June 30, 2022.
“The town continues to seek to provide the highest level of services for our residents and businesses shared with the county,” he continued. “The decision to transfer the town’s utility system to the authority offers a sustainable financial withdrawal for the town and will result in increased efficiencies and quality in the delivery of water and wastewater services for the customers.”
According to Peters, particulars of the proposal include: the WVWA will pay the town $3 million over three years and the town will also retain the balance of the Utility Fund (approximately $2.5 million) that will be used for other capital improvement projects within the town such as traffic signal replacement, construction/repair of sidewalks and storm water improvements. The town will receive joint appointment authority to select a candidate for one of Roanoke County’s three seats on the WVWA Board. No town or authority jobs will be lost due to the acquisition by WVWA of the utility system.
The town currently pays for wastewater treatment. Once the WVWA takes over, the town will not bear the expense for wastewater treatment.
WVWA will assume 100% of the town’s debt associated with the Utility System (approximately $9 million). Vinton will provide WVWA with $5.7 million of ARPA funds for water/wastewater-related capital improvement within the Vinton/East Roanoke County Utility Service Area.
The Town of Vinton will complete current utility system improvement projects by June 30, 2022: SCADA system updates of $400,000; 3rd Street sewer lift station rebuild of $2,000,000; the system-wide radio read meter replacement of $1,600,000; and the 1st Street Water Line Replacement, $400,000.
Over the next six months, the town and authority will work together to finalize all the steps for this acquisition. Engineering studies will be conducted to determine if and how new distribution lines and water sources can be used to provide water in the town.
As for the benefits for customers, a joint press release states, “The town’s governmental leaders and management have listened to their utility customers and wanted to provide the best rate and infrastructure stability, service, and water quality for current and future customers. The best way to do that is a regional approach. Working together regionally provides better rate stability, drought protection, infrastructure planning and maintenance for all customers. The authority’s footprint across multiple jurisdictions supports economic development in the entire valley through high quality and quantity of water, sewage treatment capacity and competitive rate structures.
“Customers in the Town of Vinton will receive a high level of service and an investment in water supply, treatment and delivery that is more readily available on the larger scale the Authority can offer. The town will also be able to focus more of its time and funding on important community development projects such as transportation enhancements, improving the town’s walkability, and improving stormwater management.”
For existing customers in the authority’s service area, the addition of the approximately 5,200 Vinton water customers provides a larger base in which to spread the organization’s operational and capital expenses.
What will change for current Vinton customers? “Groundwater wells are currently used to provide drinking water for town residents and businesses. While some residents will continue to receive their drinking water from the existing groundwater wells, the authority will utilize existing water distribution interconnections to allow water from the Carvins Cove Reservoir to supply some homes and businesses with treated drinking water.”
Water from Carvins Cove is treated at a conventional treatment facility, filtered, and then disinfected with chlorine, with fluoride added. The facility has the capacity to treat 28 million gallons of water per day.
Sanitary sewer for town customers is currently transported through pipes to the Roanoke Regional Water Pollution Control Plant. Customers will continue to receive the same high level of service provided by this facility.
Currently, WVWA customers who use 5,000 gallons per month pay $28.75 for water and $35.25 for sewer service. Current town customers pay $28.97 a month for 5,000 gallons of water and $37.38 a month for sewer (based on 5,000 gallons of water consumption). It is anticipated that rates would be equalized with the authority rates in effect July 1, 2022.
McEvoy says the WVWA currently has about 64,000 customer connections so the addition of the Vinton customers is an increase of about 8.5%. “There are several reasons that working with Vinton makes sense. First, customer size is important in utilities. More customers to share expenses, especially fixed expenses, means each individual customer has a lower cost to carry. Working together regionally provides better rate stability, drought protection, infrastructure planning and maintenance for all customers. Also, there are redundancies that can be eliminated. For example, there is no need for the town and authority to run separate utility billing systems. This will not result in lower rates but will likely slow increases in rates for everyone.
“Second, a significant portion of Vinton customers are in Roanoke County. As the county is a member locality, we feel an obligation to work on solutions for their benefit. Finally, the authority was created in 2004 with a goal of creating a regional utility to benefit the citizens of the Roanoke Valley. In fact, being a regional leader is one of four points in our vision statement. Working together creates a stronger utility system for everyone.”
As for the financial aspects, McEvoy believes “the agreement reached is fair to both parties. Nearly every expansion or acquisition by the authority has involved some debt assumption as utilities is a capital-intensive industry, so we are used to that component. From a cash standpoint, the authority will increase revenues and will benefit from new additional customers that connect.”
The town and East County service areas have many needs already on the Town of Vinton’s list for line repairs and replacements. Without this agreement with the WVWA, much of the $5.7 million ARPA funding would have gone to those infrastructure needs in specific neighborhoods. With the agreement, those funds go to the authority. McEvoy says, “These funds have to be spent by a certain deadline, so I see these projects happening on the same time schedule the town would have spent them.
“The authority is just completing the first phase of a master planning exercise that looks at opportunities (new construction, growth potential, efficiency improvements, etc.) in Franklin and Botetourt Counties,” said McEvoy. “Phase two examines the City of Roanoke and Roanoke County, so we will include the town and East County service areas in that process. Overall, we are excited about the possibility to serve this portion of Roanoke County.
“The town is already full integrated with the authority when it comes to wastewater service, having been a partner in the Regional WPC Plant for many years, so almost no work will be needed except normal ongoing maintenance,” McEvoy explained when asked about changes to the existing infrastructure. “As for water, we are still evaluating how much and how quickly we can transition town customers to Carvins Cove water. Likely we will have to make some pumping improvements to service town customers at higher elevations, but it appears that quite a few customers can be served with Carvins Cove water now. Before any switch, staff needs to look at possible effects on fire flows; however, we think this will have a positive impact. We would of course provide customers with advance notice of any changes.
“Probably the biggest immediate change town customers will notice is billing and payment options,” McEvoy said. “Billing will be monthly instead of every two months, and the authority uses a sewer billing method that limits charges should customers use more water in the summer for irrigation. The authority also has a number of payment options that I think customers will like, such a pay by text, automatic bank drafting, pay by phone, online payments and the traditional payment by mail.”
Vinton’s Assistant Town Manager Cody Sexton summed it all up: “With the utility customers in the town receiving a high level of service from the authority, we are excited to be able to focus more time and funding on important projects throughout the community.”
Mayor Grose invited all citizens and customers of the utility system that may have questions to attend a special public information open house to be held on Tuesday, January 25, from 5-7:30 p.m. at the Vinton War Memorial. Staff from the WVWA and the town will be present to answer questions and will have information available regarding the utility system transfer.