Commission approves new utility workshop
Although the Jefferson County Commission isn’t entirely on board for Charles Town and Ranson to absorb the Jefferson County Public Service District, members voted Thursday to approve a workshop date to discuss the matter further. Before Thursday’s meeting, both Charles Town and Ranson city councils approved resolutions regarding the restructuring in order to eventually equalize the utility rates across the three utility entities outlined in the plan – the Jefferson County PSD, the city of Charles Town and the City of Ranson.
Present at Thursday’s meeting to represent the workshop request were Charles Town Mayor Peggy Smith, Ranson Mayor Duke Pierson, Charles Town Attorney Hoy Shingleton and Morgantown Attorney Tim Stranko. Smith said the acquisition would be a step in the right direction for Jefferson County.
“This is about a transfer of assets and debts to two regulated utilities – the city of Charles Town and the city of Ranson,” Smith said.
“We know that this transaction will not be an overnight transaction, it is going to take due diligence on everyone’s part, but we would not be here today if we didn’t think that this was something important for this county.”
Pierson echoed Smith’s words. “I know that all entities want to make sure that we put out the best assistance to our residents that we possibly can, and the proposal that we’ve been working on jointly with Charles Town we feel is the best,”
Pierson told the board. Stranko outlined the proposal to the board, saying that the most important aspect is making sure the residents of the jurisdictions are best served.
“Our job is to provide service for everyone who asks for it, so we’re not suggesting the regulate development. What we’re going to do is market, shape and encourage development with sound and coherent plants,” Stranko said.
“We need to deliver the best possible service we can at the lowest possible price. The question is, going forward, what is the best configuration of service? It’s a business question, it’s not an emotional question. It has nothing to do with past performance. It has to do with future performance, and most importantly, future development.”
Some of the commissioners, however, had some concerns about the proposal.
“Everybody in this room knows that for years I have been saying that we need to find a way with consolidation and coming up with a singular issue … but I have a bit of a problem in that you’re coming before the commission asking for preliminary support for the asset acquisition of the Jefferson County PSD. That, to me, is putting the cart before the horse,” Commissioner Walt Pellish said.
“What I am prepared to do as a commissioner and strongly support is a continuation of this study to see if the asset acquisition makes the most sense and with a strong proviso that Commissioner (Jane) Tabb be part and parcel of the group that’s designated to move forward with this study and that she have full, unfettered, complete access to all financial data, all discussions and all proposed solutions.”
Tabb agreed with Pellish. “I agree with Walt’s provision, even though it doesn’t have to be me, because I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be the county commission liason at the PSD and not have voting rights, not be allowed in executive session,” Tabb said.
“It’s very hard to feel you know what’s going on, so that level of openness is needed.” Stranko responded, telling the commission that the main purpose of attending Thursday’s meeting was to create a time for a workshop to work through issues and answer questions rather than agreeing to the actual acquisition proposal.
Moreover, Commission President Patsy Noland expressed concern about how the acquisition would benefit her district.
“I want to know how this plan benefits the people in my district that are currently served by the Tuscawilla Utility Plant as part of the Charles Town Utility district,” Noland said.
Noland continued, saying the merger is a bad idea.
“There is a lot more to this than any of us even understand, and I am very disappointed. I believe it was done underhandedly. I didn’t know anything about this until it was brought to my attention on the city’s agenda for their meeting,” Noland said.
“I had no idea that this was happening, and that this was happening now. All that does is drive a bigger wedge between the entities as they are today. It creates a lack of trust, in my opinion.”
Stranko said the main reason fro appearing before the board was to create a public dialogue and request the board’s participation in a business decision rather than trying to be secretive. Soon thereafter,
Commissioner Dale Manuel made a motion to approve a workshop, and he expressed his support of the proposed acquisition.
“I am concerned about all of the rate payers. I don’t want to see the rates go up for anyone if they don’t have to,” Manuel said.
“This body has asked people to bring proposals before us to combine, to merge the sewer assets and infrastructure in this county, and I think here is a possible means to achieve that goal. There’s a lot of different reasons to do it.”
After addressing the lengthy agenda item, commissioners finally voted to approve a date of Nov. 3 for the workshop, making clear that the board does not approve of the acquisition itself, just the continued study and discussion of the acquisition.