Chesterfield proposes purchase of regional water authority

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 5, 2018 | 12:30 p.m. 

Prince George, Dinwiddie would be Chesterfield customers under proposal

PRINCE GEORGE – When most residents and businesses turn on the knob on their sink to get a drink of water, the idea of where that water is coming from isn’t the first thought that comes to mind, but for leaders in South Central Virginia, if a proposal pitched this month is approved, exactly who is providing that water to the region could change.

In August, the Appomattox River Water Authority gathered for their monthly meeting where, among the business discussed, the most anticipated item of the assemblage was a proposal that had not been discussed publicly by the board but had been revealed to the community in late July in Prince George County: a presentation by ARWA member locality Chesterfield County where they would lay out their proposal to purchase and acquire the authority and its assets, including Lake Chesdin, and other infrastructure across the region owned by the authority.

ARWA is the clean water provider for much of South Central Virginia, serving the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George and the cities of Petersburg and Colonial Heights and has existed since the 1960s, officially delivering water to customers starting in early 1968. 

Over the past several years, localities have been working to determine exactly what percentage of ARWA’s current capacity allocations they are actually entitled to as some language within the authority has called those water rights into question at a time when discussions about buying and selling water between member localities began to be had.

In a document dated June 13, 2017, provided by Prince George County, it was revealed to members of ARWA that their attorney ruled “the existing water agreement does not create ownership by any of the member jurisdictions of any portion of the treated water.” Costs for needed upgrades to the facility were financed under the then-mistaken mindset that the member localities were “expecting to ‘own’ the portion of the expanded plant that they had paid for.”

Efforts to amend the 1964 service agreement to show and create “ownership interest in a percentage of ARWA water as determined by prior contributions” failed as all of the member localities’ governing bodies had to approve the amendment to the service agreement unanimously.

The large water treatment plant would be one of the assets Chesterfield would own should a proposal to buy the authority move forward. In order for it to happen, all member county and city governments must approve the sale unanimously. (ARWA)

Despite the lack of an update to the agreement reflecting such ownership, according to data from Chesterfield, the sprawling county says they have “rights to 66.54 million gallons per day,” accounting for nearly 70 percent of the current capacity allocations. Data from fellow member locality Petersburg further shows Chesterfield’s leading position in terms of water usage as, in 2016, Chesterfield accounted for 7.1 billion gallons of water produced by ARWA, more than the other four member localities combined. 

When contrasted with Chesterfield’s water production, according to 2016 data from ARWA, just over 400 million gallons of water was produced for Dinwiddie while roughly 258 million gallons were produced for Prince George County. Petersburg was the only other billion-gallon member locality, with their 2016 production topping out at 1.7 billion gallons, while Colonial Heights was third highest at 619 million gallons. 

In terms of the remaining roughly 31 percent of capacity used by ARWA members, also referred to as a jurisdiction’s plant allocation, 16 percent is used by Petersburg, nearly seven percent is used by Dinwiddie, four percent by Colonial Heights and just under three percent by Prince George.

Earlier this summer, it was revealed during a Prince George County Board of Supervisors work session by a county leader that Chesterfield was seeking to purchase ARWA, a fact later confirmed by a number of member localities following remarks by ARWA board member and Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft.

“[Chesterfield] is going to present a plan to ARWA to buy the whole system,” Ashcraft said during the July 31 work session at the Central Wellness Center.

The comment came during a discussion at the work session about Prince George County’s water needs and the possibility of pursuing independent efforts to install a county-owned intake and construct a water treatment plant in a general area between where Riverside Regional Jail is currently located and the Appomattox River Regional Park. 

“That is their idea,” Ashcraft continued, “[Chesterfield] would take over the whole system and then we would become customers of their system.”

During ARWA’s meeting at their Lake Chesdin facility, members of the body entered to closed session for “discussion and consideration of the disposition by the Appomattox River Water Authority of publicly held real property, specifically the real property of the authority,” where such discussion during an open meeting would “adversely affect the authority’s bargaining position and negotiating strategy,” with Chesterfield County Administrator and ARWA Board Member Dr. Joseph Casey making the initial motion to transition the meeting into executive session to begin the discussion.

Due to the nature of the proposal and the fact that it may involve the sale of real property, which would require some form of negotiations by the public board, something that is protected thanks to the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, little is known about the financials of Chesterfield’s proposal to purchase the Appomattox River Water Authority and its assets. 

What has been revealed in the lead-up to this initial presentation is apprehension by some in the region about giving their neighbor a key asset in driving economic development, particularly industrial development, in a community – water.

“I think that would be a real dicey thing,” Prince George Supervisor T.J. Webb said during the July work session where the purchase proposal by Chesterfield was brought up by county leaders.

Those thoughts were echoed by Prince George’s new director of utilities and engineering Frank Haltom, who remarked, “[Chesterfield] would control economic development in the region.”

Others have expressed their own concerns about the impact of Chesterfield assuming control of the water system would have on their own community’s negotiating power for prospective business or industry. When a locality is discussing the needs of a prospect on the water side, those talks are had confidentially between ARWA and the member locality. 

While agreements could be drafted, some have worries about if a business wants to locate in their county or city and Chesterfield, if they purchased ARWA and its assets, thus turning member localities into customers of the county’s water system, a locality may be placed in a position where they would have to reveal information about a prospective business to Chesterfield, who also might be vying for that business, as well. 

The Appomattox River Water Authority met last month and, among their agenda items, they heard a proposal from Chesterfield to purchase the authority and its assets, turning Dinwiddie and Prince George from member localities to customers of Chesterfield. (Michael Campbell)

Along with negotiation concerns, others have stated they are also concerned about the cost of water and the possibility of that increases for localities should Chesterfield acquire the authority and its assets. While details remain scarce on the proposal that was made during their closed session meeting, if the proposal were to move forward, some local governments would likely want some form of guarantee that water rates will be fixed for a period of time following the acquisition.

While the presentation by Chesterfield County remains simply a proposal by the locality to the authority, if it were to move forward, the acquisition would have to be approved by all current members and local governments. Even though Chesterfield represents nearly 70 percent of the capacity used within the authority, Chesterfield’s ARWA board member, County Administrator Casey only accounts for one vote on the board of five localities.

From there, the decision would then fall into the hands of each of the five localities’ boards of supervisors and city councils, where a unanimous approval of the measure would be required. If any of the five localities votes against the purchase, the proposal fails. For local governments, the importance of this topic isn’t lost on them.

“This could possibly have a big impact on our region,” Alan Carmichael, chairman of the Prince George Board of Supervisors remarked as members of his board have recently discussed researching water and wastewater options in an effort to add needed capacity to help spark growth in the county, particularly on the industrial side.

There is no timetable for when this matter will be discussed in open session. The Appomattox River Water Authority will hold their next meeting on September 13 at the South Central Wastewater Authority in Petersburg.

Copyright 2018 by Womack Publishing
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