By ANGELA FARR KING
In an effort to offer some financial relief due to economic losses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government has awarded Alexander County 7.2 million dollars. Half of that money has been received and the other half will come later this year. So, what is the plan for this large amount of money?
In a transparent interview on Friday, Feb. 11, County Manager Rick French shared the decision made by the county commissioners to use this money to continue with a water line project that has been underway for years. He said that there are still “many county residents in need of adequate water. Some residents can’t dig wells because the ground is too hard. Some well water has sulfur in it, making it almost impossible to drink.” Many residents have been complaining and asking for new water lines.
French explained that Alexander County purchases water from the City of Hickory and this water supplies all the needs of the connected residents of Alexander County, including fire protection. Water is expensive and so are the lines needed to connect to the main source. [Editor’s Note: the Town of Taylorsville’s water system is from a different supply.]
There is also a plan to build a new water tank in Bethlehem because the current one does not have adequate pressure. Without the federal money, loans would have to be secured for projects like these. With the ARP money, these water projects can be funded without borrowing money.
French went on to explain that there was a bidding process to choose a company to complete the water project. Engineers have been employed and all plans must be approved by the state of North Carolina, making this a very complex process. Something else that has slowed down the water project is that materials are difficult to obtain at this time due to Covid shutdowns and a loss of workers. This makes the water project a lengthy one that will take years to complete.
When asked if there was a formal needs assessment conducted to determine how the money would be spent, French said that they have a long list of customers needing lines to connect to a central water source, so the water project was the obvious choice. This is a long term project impacting many families in Alexander County. The estimated cost to meet the needs of residents is approximately 10 million dollars. The plan to use the $7.2 million won’t cover what is needed, but it will make great strides in the right direction.
Another question asked was in relation to bonuses for county employees. French responded by explaining that the ARP money comes with rigid restrictions. In choosing to use the money for the government approved water projects, money from the regular budget has been freed up for future employee pay raises and other needed projects in the county. He said that county employees received a two and a half percent raise at the beginning of the year and they are hoping to give another five percent raise in July.
He further explained that every dollar spent of the ARP money must be monitored and they must provide reports to the federal government as to how it is spent. They are very restricted as to how they can spend the money. He also said that they have been given an “interim final” set of rules for spending the money. With the knowledge that the rules of spending can easily change, the commissioners have been very cautious with using the money so that they do not have to pay it back.
Manager French said that the county started by adding water lines to the main roads with the current water project and are in the process of adding secondary roads. He said that once the project was started, they began to receive numerous calls from customers asking to have new water lines installed. He stated that additional lines will help the county grow, will provide needed fire protection, and will ensure that families have safe drinking water.
There are many needs in Alexander County, such as the acquisition of a homeless shelter and funding for early childhood education. French and the commissioners are aware of these needs and explained that they are a “small county government” trying to be as efficient as possible with their budget and the added ARP funds. They are, however, willing to hear concerns and presentations about valid needs.
Mr. French also stated as a reminder that anyone wishing to attend a commissioners meeting is invited to attend to further their understanding of the process for decision making. The commissioners meet on the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. at the CVCC Alexander Campus. If an individual or organization wishes to make needs known, they can call the county clerk at 828-632-9332 to ask to be placed on the agenda. Each person approved for public comment will be allowed a three minute time slot for speaking and presenting. Afterward, the commissioners will discuss what has been brought before them. Unfortunately, there isn’t a time for back and forth dialogue with the public at this time, but maybe this could be rectified in some way.
There is a need to have more stakeholders involved in decision making. In years past, people were more civic minded and wanted to be a part of local government. They had forums and civic organizations to do so. Those have gone by the wayside it seems, but could be reborn. In this new day of social media communication, people can be quick to criticize online, rather than going through the processes to be heard. If there is a true need, then it needs to be presented to the commissioners with research and thought. They seem willing to listen. As noted in other public forums, the best way to communicate is with respect, rather than aggression. People working together with their local government can only result in a stronger Alexander County.