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Councilmember Questions Environmental, Capacity Policies of Authority

By Megan V. Williams

Wilmington, NC – The consolidation of Wilmington and New Hanover County's water and sewer systems is one vote away from becoming a reality. But while the Authority is moving toward getting its staff in place, some officials still have questions about its future.

Both the City Council and County Board of Commissioners are expected to vote next month on the interlocal agreement laying out how the new Cape Fear Public Utility Authority will operate.

The document isn't finished yet, though, and at a meeting Wednesday to fill elected officials in on its progress, councilmember Laura Padgett raised questions on a number of items.

Padgett says she's concerned that drafts of the agreement don't require the Authority to prioritize environmental policies and technologies. Nor, according to Padgett, does it address how the Authority will manage capacity concerns for the growing region, or whether the service area can expand in the future.

"I want to know what we're approving before we cut the cord and the Authority no longer has any obligation to answer to elected officials," Padgett said after the meeting.

A number of councilmembers, including Padgett, have described the consolidation as possibly the biggest undertaking of their political careers.

Members of the Authority commitee said they welcomed the council's questions, but warned against bogging the process down in details. If the city council and county commissioners pass the Interlocal agreement next month, the Authority will formally begin operations next summer.

While elected officials look ahead to the interlocal agreement, the committee is moving toward hiring the core staff for the Authority.

The group is currently in negotiations with a chosen candidate for General Manager. While the Authority won't release the candidate's name, Committee Vice Chair Gene Renzaglia says the man runs a similar water and sewer utility in a smaller city.

"Most importantly, this is a person who has about 25 years experience in the utilities sector," Renzaglia said.

The group is also in the process of reviewing candidates for a number of positions that will report directly to the General Manager. Those jobs were advertised to existing water and sewer employees of the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County, although Renzaglia couldn't say how many had applied.

One of the guiding principals of the Authority's formation is that it cannot lay off or demote any current employees of the departments it will take over.

Do you have any expertise, insight, or comments on this news story? We'd love to hear from you at news@whqr.org.