Wastewater issues should be excluded from reversion talks

By Debbie Hall and Brandon Martin

Staff Writers

At least one member of Martinsville City Council is calling for Martinsville’s wastewater agreement with the Henry County PSA and related issues to be excluded from reversion discussions.

“The sewer agreement should not be part of this” reversion discussion, said Danny Turner said. “It was an error to put this into the reversion negotiations.”

The city’s contention that the PSA should help cover repairs to a sewer line, and concerns about losing $1 million annually when the Lower Smith Wastewater Treatment plant reopens also should not be debated during reversion discussions, Turner said.

The PSA currently contracts with the city to treat wastewater – not Henry County. Reversion discussions should be with the county, according to Dale Wagoner, Assistant County Administrator and Assistant General Manager of the PSA.

“We agree with Danny. This is a PSA issue and not a county issue. The county does not have an agreement with the city for sewer and water services,” Wagoner said, and added that county officials have determined water and sewer issues “are PSA issues that will not be addressed as part of the reversion.”

Assistant City Manager and City Attorney Eric Monday said the PSA issues are included in reversion discussions for a number of reasons.

For instance, the sewer line repairs are to “a large sewer pipe that runs along the Smith River where the old Bassett-Walker plant is located. It serves a massive amount of waste water that comes from Henry County. Our interpretation of our waste water contract with the PSA is that you are responsible for your percentage of a particular asset when it comes times to replace it. The PSA contends that they owe us nothing for the cost to replace the pipe. So that is currently a bone of contention between the PSA and the city,” Monday said.

“In addition, the PSA has indicated and received loan underwriting for $24 million to reopen their sewer plants. It is our understanding that they no longer wish to be our waste water plant customer. On the average, that would cost us $1 million a year. We do not agree with the rationale for reopening the Henry County plant. If they were to do so, they would be operating at near capacity on the day they open. They are located on the other side of the state scenic trout-stocked river,” he said of the Lower Smith Wastewater Treatment plant.

The PSA received the necessary permits for that facility in April, 2017, according to PSA officials.

However, Monday alleged “it violates state environmental policy and lastly, our plant is capable of handling the entire waste water needs of Martinsville-Henry County combined. With the remaining capacity of 50 percent, we wonder why the PSA would wish to incur, not $24 million, but somewhere in the high $30s, mid-$40s to reopen a sewer plant that is not needed and would bracket a state scenic river, and would completely max out the day it opens.

“It is a violation of Virginia State Environmental Policy which mandates that the most efficient treatment of regional waste water needs is what the Commonwealth pursues,” he added.

But Turner said adding those issues into the mix only further complicates the complex reversion discussion.

“This should have been settled long ago,” Turner said, adding he believes the PSA “is still in a sewage agreement with us.”

Turner recalled that before a 2005 amendment to the city’s wastewater agreement with the PSA, the city was guaranteed to treat the county’s wastewater.

The amendment came about after “another bad decision.… Adelphia Cable filed bankruptcy. Comcast/Time Warner were going to buy the assets. Martinsville decided to be a fly in the ointment, and not sell,” Turner said.

At the time, city officials decided to try to leverage the city’s interests, purchase and operate a regional cable company to replace revenue lost when the landfill closed, records showed. Both the city and the county held a right of first refusal to match any purchase offer by a third party interested in buying the cable TV system, according to several documents and court records.

As a result, the city contacted Henry County officials, and learned the PSA “wanted out of a sewer (wastewater) agreement with the city,” Turner said. “Martinsville said, ‘sell us your cable rights.’”

In exchange an amendment to the city’s Nov. 8, 2002 wastewater contract with the PSA was approved. The amendment stated, in part, that the PSA could rescind its wastewater contract by providing 90 days written notice. Henry County reassigned their rights to the cable TV system to the city in exchange.

The issue led to a federal court case between Martinsville Cable Inc., a nonprofit Virginia corporation, versus Time Warner NY Cable, LLC, a Delaware limited liability corporation, and others.

Judge Michael F. Urbanski heard the case in Danville, and in 2006 issued a Memorandum Opinion which stated, in part, that “the city and county have acted brazenly to asset ‘leverage’ in their own interest, without so much as even paying lip service to the calculus required by their own ordinances.”

Urbanski ultimately denied Martinsville Cable Inc.’s motion for partial summary judgement and entered summary judgement in favor of Time Warner.

“A federal judge struck down this case. I maintain that Henry County is still in a sewage agreement with us, and has got to guarantee us a certain amount of” service per year, Turner said. “This issue should have been fixed long ago.”

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