BOONE — Members of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners expressed frustration with the town of Boone on Oct. 1 in response to remarks town staff made about water and sewer fees the county must pay for its recreation center.
The issue stems from a Nov. 6, 2018, invoice from the town of Boone to Watauga County for a water and sewer system development fee of $495,305.13. This was a significant change from the $69,382.50 estimation the county was initially quoted on June 15, 2018.
On June 19, 2018, the Boone Town Council voted to double the town’s water and sewer system development fees, which are one-time charges for new or redeveloped projects, and make additional changes to its calculation methods. The water development fee increased from $3.75 per gallon per day to $7.89 per gpd, and the wastewater fee increased from $4.50 per gpd to $7.99 per gpd.
In a Sept. 25, 2019, edition of the Watauga Democrat, an article with the title “Commissioners shocked by $495K in Boone fees for rec center” included statements by Boone Town Manager John Ward about the fee.
Ward stated in the article that, “The town started requiring a set of approved building plans that were used to calculate more accurate impacts to the system. The initial number that was provided was revised once more detailed and accurate information was provided via the approved building plans.”
According to County Manager Deron Geouque, Ward’s statements made it sound like the county had changed its plans.
“There were no modifications to our plan — none,” Geouque said. “Plans were already in place and were proceeding forward. The information they were receiving was information they requested from us.”
On Oct. 3, Ward explained that in order to calculate system development fees, different uses within a building are multiplied by the state’s estimated water use schedule to develop a total estimated water use for the entire facility. The total use is then multiplied by cost per gallon to develop the total bill for each project. He said previously that the new fee system adopted last year resulted in a more accurate method of calculation.
According to information provided by the town, it estimated 34,235.5 gpd for the project. Ward confirmed that prior to the new system, the town had calculated usage at 60 percent of the state’s water use schedule, and the council gave staff direction to calculate at 100 percent going forward. Ward added that the town was previously using an old state schedule that was outdated.
“The new method and rates required new development/projects to pay more due to their projected use of the system,” Ward said. “This method also recognizes that existing customers should not have to subsidize new development and projects.” He confirmed that the June 2018 estimate utilized the 60 percent usage calculation.
Geouque said that an engineer with the rec center estimated that to potentially use 35,000 gallons in one day at the rec center, roughly 7,000 people would need to come through the facility in one day and flush the toilet.
“We would have to drain and refill all of the pools three and a half times a day to reach that calculation,” said Chairman John Welch.
Additionally, the county acquired data from the last five years of water use at Appalachian State University’s Student Recreation Center — which Welch said was 20,000 square feet larger than the planned county rec center. The data showed that App State’s facility averaged from 2,500 to 11,000 gallons daily (11,000 gallons if draining the pool for repairs), according to Geouque.
“If the county feels that the plans and the uses they have identified on the plans such as pools, gymnasiums, exercise facilities, offices are not accurate, then I would be glad to arrange another meeting between our staff and their staff to review a second time,” Ward said on Oct. 3.
It was mentioned during the commissioners’ Oct. 1 meeting that the town would not allow the county to pay the $69,382.50 bill last summer, as the town had not yet completed its water and sewer fee study, according to Geouque.
Geouque provided a timeline of communication between the town and county regarding the issue. June 15, 2018, was when the town issued the original estimation.
On Aug. 7, 2018, Geouque states that the county received an email from the town stating it needed to re-calculate the gallon per day allocation for the project and then adjust the allocation and charges under the newly adopted system development fees. This email also stated that payment was required prior to being issued a building permit.
Two days later, the county received an email stating that as of July 1, all projects that did not have building permits were being reassessed for new system development fees.
Included in this email was a list of questions to be answered with regard to receiving a credit for existing water usage. In the same day, the county then received an invoice on Aug. 9, 2018, of $83,655.84 for the water and sewer system development fees, including the credits for the existing structures that would’ve been $80,194, according to Geouque.
Later that month, Geouque stated that the county’s engineering firm responded to town of Boone questions regarding the existing buildings, parking, meters, services, occupancy, restrooms, toilets, sinks and other items. None of these items changed the original plans submitted, according to Geouque.
“If there are no modifications to our plans, why did we have to pay so much more money?” asked Commissioner Perry Yates. “I’d like the town to answer that question.”
The final invoice came on Nov. 6, 2018, for the amount of $495,305.13. Geouque said no detail was provided as to why the fee increased to the final amount.
“The county sought clarification for the increase and was gathering information per the town to resubmit the application in an effort to waive/reduce the fee and bring the number closer to the $69,382.50 and $83,655.84 that was originally invoiced and utilized in the county’s budget projection for the fees,” Geouque said.
Ward said on Oct. 2 that staff from the town and county as well as representatives from Harper Construction met on Nov. 13, 2018, to review the new system development fee invoice.
“Town staff explained in detail court rulings that required all water and sewer providers to adopt new system development fees, changes in the price per gallon and how they were calculated using the state water use schedule,” Ward said. “We discussed the uses listed on the development plans submitted by the county and how those uses were used in the calculations.”
At that time, Ward said the county questioned the gpd that were calculated using the state water use schedule and the town agreed to review any comparably sized facilities that had the same uses that they provided.
“To my knowledge no new information has been provided by the county,” Ward said.
After the November invoice, Geouque stated that the town was aware that the county “was actively evaluating its options on how to respond to the significant increase.” Geouque said that through conversations, town staff led the county to believe that the county would not be expected to pay the fee until the actual connection was made to the system.
“The county has been relying on this representation in good faith,” Geouque said.
Rick Miller, the director of the town’s Public Works Department, sent a letter to Geouque on Aug. 28, 2019, stating the county had 30 days after receiving the letter to pay the fee. This change was made after the Boone Town Council adopted a new code (section 50-461) in July of this year, according to Miller’s letter.
“This has been talked about for 40 years. For the town of Boone to not want to partner … it’s a real shame,” Welch said. “It’s about time for some folks who want to keep saying they want to partner with some projects to actually put their money where their mouth is.”
Recreation center update
Chad Roberson, an architect with Clark Nexsen, provided an update on the progress of the rec center to the commissioners at the Oct. 1 meeting. The project had expended 357 days and $21,542.932 of its contract with 35 weather days and a projected completion date of April 25, 2020.
The building had 40 percent of the roofing completed, 90 percent of the exterior framing and sheathing done, work beginning on the parking lot as well as the competition pool walls and leisure pool slab completed.
Roberson and Geouque both made positive comments on the hard work of Harper Construction on the project.
“I’ve been here 20 years, I haven’t found a team that’s been better than what we have today,” Geouque said.