Regional water options under review

It’s going to be a minute before the regional water argument is settled. Both neighboring Prince Edward and Nottoway counties are waiting for a final decision by Virginia Finance Secretary Stephen Cummings. 

It all involves which group will get approval to provide water for the Nottoway Correctional Center, Piedmont Geriatric Hospital and the Town of Burkeville. All three are currently served by the Town of Crewe, but last year, Prince Edward County received permission from the state to run a water line over county lines and potentially provide service. They became a competitor, bidding for the same contract in essence. Earlier this year, Cummings put out a Request for Information (RFI), basically asking each group to submit their best bid. Now both groups are waiting for a response. 

Crewe Town Manager Phil Miskovic said Monday they worked with the town of Blackstone to provide a joint response to Cummings’ RFI. Miskovic said they spoke with the deputy secretary twice since providing the information, the most recent occasion in mid-April. 

“I’m sure this issue has taken a back seat to the General Assembly session, budget negotiations, and special session this week, but that we should be hearing from them soon,” he said.

QUESTIONS RAISED BY STATE BUDGET

So far, the wording in last year’s state budget makes the only argument we’ve heard from Virginia officials. It argues that phases one and two of the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation and Nottoway Correctional Center “may be best satisfied through Prince Edward County owning and operating a water supply system consisting of the Sandy Creek reservoir, an intake system, a water treatment facility and related components and all necessary water lines, pumps, tanks and other facilities to serve the Identified Commonwealth Facilities on a long-term basis.”

Also of concern for Nottoway is the fact that budget amendment gives Prince Edward County the authority to exercise eminent domain to obtain the land needed to extend its system in Nottoway County. It goes on to say it can extend outside Prince Edward County “without obtaining the consent or permission of any locality or public body.”

Miskovic said the amendment was added by budget conferees behind closed doors during the September 2023 special session where the legislature finally came together to approve a spending plan.

He said somehow in those budget negotiations that are held behind closed doors someone managed to get this language into the budget.

“Crewe found out about the amendment early that week. Obviously we were outraged,” Miskovic said. “Not only would this cripple us economically, but the process undertaken was perhaps the most anti-democratic action in modern Virginia history.”

He explained that with this action, Crewe stands to lose its largest water customers that account for 70% of the town’s water revenue, which “makes water — a basic human need — unaffordable for the people of Crewe.” Additionally, he said town officials only learned of the language added to the budget days before it went up for a vote.

“Just to reiterate that Crewe’s only goal is to ensure safe, affordable water for all customers, for both the short and long term,” he said.

“This amendment was introduced after the legislative session when new language is generally not allowed. No one, including the people most impacted, were given the ability to voice an opinion on it. Our state representatives were denied the ability to debate it. No one can or will say how this amendment got into the budget.”

MEETINGS AND CONVERSATIONS 

There were some meetings held between officials from Crewe and Nottoway County, with the formal meetings held in late-2023 and some information conversations earlier this year. However, there have been no talks in the past couple of months.

Asked about the situation with more meetings, Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said his group Prince Edward County has been focused on providing detailed information about the project requested by the Secretary of Finance’s office.

“We anticipate that meetings with Crewe and other stakeholders will resume in the near future,” he said. “Prince Edward has proposed that the Commonwealth join Prince Edward, Crewe, and other stakeholders in multi-party discussions when the Secretary of Finance’s Office completes its review of the information we submitted.”

Miskovic said he ran into Stanley and Joe Hines at different events, such as a Virginia Municipal League function in January, a Virginia Local Government Managers Association conference in February, and the DEQ public hearing in March.

“Those conversations were informal and primarily consisted of my requesting specific details about Prince Edward’s plan ahead of the RFI response submission, and Prince Edward representatives assuring me they would do what they can to make things work for Crewe,” Miskovic said. “I didn’t receive any of the requested data, but did receive a copy of their RFI submission response after the deadline.”

In the comprehensive plan developed by Prince Edward County and submitted to the finance secretary, Stanley said they have outlined several alternative concepts for a regional arrangement. 

“We look forward to resuming multi-party discussions with our prospective partners to move those plans past the concept stage,” Stanley said. “Prince Edward provided detailed information to the secretary’s office about all aspects of the project. We understand the secretary is gathering information to inform discussions going forward.”

DAMAGE DONE TO CREWE

Miskovic said town officials there have grave concerns about how losing such a large percentage of its water revenue could cripple the town. 

“Speaking for myself, I can’t blame Prince Edward officials for wanting to do everything they can to improve quality of life for residents in their county, including attracting a data center for the tax revenue,” Miskovic said. 

But he doesn’t believe the process for achieving it should involve taking Crewe’s largest customers.

Miskovic said the town of Blackstone is Crewe’s preferred option for a regional water partnership.

“This was also the preferred option of the Department of General Services following their 2020-2021 independent analysis,” he said, noting the agency informed Crewe, Blackstone and the state facilities of this in spring 2021. “At that meeting we brought up the Prince Edward option, which then-DGS Director Joe Damico said was evaluated but found to be too speculative. We began planning with DGS and Blackstone until, without explanation, DGS abruptly changed their mind and began planning with Prince Edward several months later.”

While Blackstone remains Crewe’s preferred partner, he said ultimately the state will decide where Crewe gets its water. 

“If the state selects Prince Edward, we hope future discussions with all parties will be based on full, open, honest, and transparent communication—elements essential for a regional partnership in it truest sense,” he added.

There was no response to requests seeking comment and an update on the review process from the Secretary of Finance as of press deadline.

In the meantime, the permit process for Prince Edward County’s water treatment facility is progressing.

A final public hearing was held April 24 by the state Department of Environmental Quality on Prince Edward County’s permit for the treatment facility at Sandy River Reservoir, Stanley said.

“We expect the permit to be issued at any time,” he said.

The first phase of the Sandy River project is estimated to carry a price tag of between $50 million and $55 million, with the treatment facility coming in at $28 to $29 million, with the rest being lines and a water intake system.