Lewis County leaders gave their approval Thursday to begin talks with Water-Sewer District 5 on moving the system under county control, a long-discussed measure that officials have been vetting for some time.
“If the (county) commission is willing and ready to do this, we need to go back to (District 5) and say, ‘You need to make a decision if you’re going to turn this over to the county or not,’” said county manager Erik Martin. “We need to move forward or fall back, because we’re spending a lot of staff time on this, and we’d rather be spending it on fixing the problem. There’s a risk, but the risk may be greater in waiting.”
The county has been exploring a takeover of the troubled district since District 5’s two feuding commissioners voted to ask county officials to step in. Since then, the district and the county have agreed to an arrangement that gives the county some operational control of the district. Now, they’re on the verge of dissolving the district altogether and moving it into the county fold.
“At some point, we’ve done about all we can do to try to expedite it from the county level,” said county commissioner Gary Stamper. “We need to get with them and say, ‘It’s time. You guys need to make a decision.’”
County leaders have been looking over the physical infrastructure and financial standing of the district, and while they haven’t yet received all the information they set out to obtain, they’ve determined the time to act is now.
“There’s the potential that the longer District 5 continues to operate the way they are, the worse things could be when the county eventually does get it,” Martin said. “We’re going to get District 5 one way or another, and I’d rather get it sooner than later.”
The tiny district has long been plagued by financial question marks, interpersonal battles and allegations of ethical improprieties. The toxic atmosphere has led to lawsuits, recall attempts and the resignation of multiple commissioners in disgust. Commissioners Virgil Fox and Deborah Hilliard have long been stalemated, and the only thing they’ve agreed on of late is that someone else should run the district.
The county became involved after neighboring District 2 ended its agreement to provide sewer services with District 5, claiming several breaches on District 5’s part. That led the county to issue a moratorium on building permits in District 5, a ban officials are eager to lift.
“That’s what we got into this for,” Martin said.
It’s unclear what legal mechanisms will be necessary to move the district under county control if its commissioners agree to cede it. County commissioners gave a “head nod” to approve the takeover request, but will need to take a formal vote in the future to absorb the district.
“What I’m looking for from the board is a head nod to say if I go ahead and work on getting District 5 to hand it over to the county, are you OK with that?” Martin asked. “Is that the direction we want to head?”
Commissioners responded in the affirmative. Stamper added that any move to take on the district will need to come with assurances from District 2 that the sewer agreement will be restored.