NEWELL - Although they're still awaiting approval from the state, two rural water districts in Hancock County are starting to cooperate in accordance with a cost-sharing agreement they finalized in March.
The Operation and Maintenance Agreement between the Grant and Tomlinson Public Service Districts means the districts will occasionally share equipment and will share personnel when needed during serious water main breaks.
The agreement is not the same thing as a merger because the Grant and Tomlinson PSDs will retain their autonomy, their boards, their staffs and their equipment, said David Stevens, general manager of Tomlinson PSD.
Hancock County commissioners approved the agreement in March and agreed to pay up to $70,000 a year for two full-time staff members, including Stevens as general manager of both districts and Jack McIntosh as manager of distribution and maintenance. The county's financial commitment is for two years, giving time for the increased wages to be assumed into the districts' rate schedules.
Commissioners followed that action up with another $25,000 in May - an expenditure that is meant to be used for the replacement of a water pump and other infrastructure improvements for Grant PSD.
In paperwork filed with the West Virginia Public Service Commission, Stevens said Grant PSD has "serious issues" that need to be addressed before the two districts can become equal partners in the agreement.
Stevens said the whole Grant system needs to be flushed, but first, its two pumps need to be replaced. "The pumps are antiquated. To get parts is difficult, so we'll have to buy a new pump and retrofit it," he said.
One 15 horsepower pump is supplying the district and is running nearly 24 hours a day, while the 10 horsepower backup pump is not sufficient to supply the system on its own, he said.
"In our estimation, we're living on the edge of a sword," Stevens said.
Once the pumps are replaced and the shutoff valves are working properly, the system can be flushed, he said.
"We need to radically flush the Grant system to break up all the brown water issues in the lines. It's been some time since it's been done in the way that it needs to be done, which is heavy-duty flushing," Stevens said.
The Grant and Tomlinson districts border each other and, together, provide water service to nearly 2,000 rural customers in northern and central Hancock County-Grant to customers between Chester and New Manchester, and Tomlinson to customers between New Manchester and New Cumberland.
Both districts buy water from other sources - Tomlinson from the city of New Cumberland and Grant from the Newell Co. - and resell it to residential and commercial customers.
Stevens said the agreement is necessitated by the fact that both districts' customer bases have grown, their systems have gotten older and regulations have changed.
While the Public Service Commission initially responded positively to the agreement, it has asked Stevens for detailed answers to 11 questions.
Stevens said the state commission's request is routine, but Grant PSD board member Ed Huff said it points to problems with the agreement. Huff was the only board member from the two districts to vote against the agreement.
"There's a lot of questions that they want answers to that they're having a hard time getting," said Huff, who believes the agreement will divert resources and manpower away from Grant PSD.
Stevens responded to the Public Service Commission's interrogatories with a lengthy reply last week and said he expects state approval within the next two months.
"The commission is 100 percent in support of this agreement. Five of the six board members are in support of it. ... We've had a lot of positive comments (from the public) and very few negative," Stevens said.