Editorial: City soaked on waterline

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Out of one side of its mouth, state government encourages towns to be responsible stewards of natural resources and to share in times of trouble. In fact, if the legislature approves a bill now before the Senate, the governor may soon have more authority during water shortages to ensure local governments are reducing usage.
But out of the other side of its mouth ó or a different body part ó state government in the form of the Department of Transportation is about to penalize Salisbury for participating in a resource-sharing venture that was strongly backed by the state. DOT wants Salisbury to foot the bill for relocating parts of the emergency water line to Statesville because it conflicts with the expansion of U.S. 70. The price? $440,000.
This might be fair if the waterline had gone in without regard for the long-awaited U.S. 70 widening. But reports indicate the line’s route was carefully laid out to avoid any conflict. It was DOT who later changed the U.S. 70 design and caused the problem. Oops.
Salisbury signed on for the emergency water connection after the 2002 drought. Statesville very nearly went dry that summer, and Salisbury knew it could someday be in the same boat. At the recommendation of the state ó and with help from grants touted by Gov. Mike Easley ó the line went in. “The drought of 2002 clearly illustrated the need for our local and state governments to work closely together to make sure water systems have the flexibility to meet the needs of their residents,” Easley said in March 2003.
Just about any time government does business with government, they wind up pointing fingers at each other. This seems particularly true of water projects. Each government unit thinks the other one ought to be paying more, and they all claim poverty. What’s different about this instance is the guilt trip the DOT laid on Salisbury. If the city didn’t agree this week to pay the bill, a DOT engineer said, the last phase of the U.S. 70 widening might have to wait another year. And we all know what happens when projects have a wait a year, like the Yadkin River Bridge over I-85. Costs go up, and they may not happen at all.
Salisbury City Council ultimately (but unhappily) agreed to pay the bill and keep the U.S. 70 project moving along. For the sake of people who rely on that road, it was the right thing to do. And in the long run, that line should be of benefit to the city as more water customers take advantage of it. But knowing that the state may soon have more control over municipal water usage has to cause great consternation. The DOT and the governor’s office are separate organizations with different agendas. But they both have the ability to jerk around local government ó sometimes in opposite directions.