County’s Safe Water Task Force Makes Progress

(Editor’s Note: James Martin is the county manager for Cumberland County.)
    The Fayetteville Observer, in recent editorial columns, has charged Cumberland County staff with being both “secretive” and “barely adequate” in their response to the challenge of providing potable water throughout the county, especially those areas with contaminated wells. These charges are inaccurate and perhaps even mean-spirited. The Observer fails to acknowledge the ongoing and unrelenting work being devoted to solving this problem. Public servants are often fairly and unfairly maligned, but the newspaper should not demean the very good beginning that has been made.  {mosimage}
    The Safe Water Task Force was formed immediately after the problem of well-water contamination became known at a public hearing on a zoning matter on Feb. 19. The task force brought together professionals with expertise and responsibility about water issues, and set to work right away on defining the challenge, determining the tasks needing to be accomplished to move forward, and in building a record of the task force’s findings. (The Fayetteville Observer has been provided minutes of the task force meetings, a public record, when they have requested them.) To date, the task force has met four times and made an initial and a subsequent interim report at public, televised meetings of the board of commissioners. To say the task force is “secretive” is unfair — these were legal meetings of state and county staff members. The task force meetings are no more “secretive” than the Observer’s internal consideration of how to deal with the letter from a possible murder suspect in the tragic Touma case.
    The board of commissioners has appropriated $2.25 million this fiscal year to address critical water contamination issues and begin preparing engineering design requirements to extend water in the county. Also, the county has signed a contract with an engineer to design a water line to the Southpoint neighborhood.
    The county has met with the Town of Hope Mills and PWC staff to begin a project to bring a water line to the Brooklyn Circle neighborhood.
    Preliminary engineering design work is under way to bring sewer to the Overhills Park community for which federal grant funding has been authorized, though not yet appropriated.
    In a parallel effort, the Eastover Sanitary District is undertaking a project to extend its water lines east to the Sampson County line.
    County staff has begun creating a countywide integrated digital database for water lines and water contamination problems. 
    County staff has held productive discussions with water providers in the region including PWC, Eastover Sanitary District, Harnett County, Robeson County and Bladen County, about potential cooperative efforts to extend water lines.
Communication between state and local agencies is being addressed and has improved.
    The board of commissioners adopted a policy requiring testing of wells in new subdivisions that are within 1,000 feet of contaminated ground water sites.
    In short, there is a lot going on. A fair-minded view of all this activity shows that the board of commissioners and county staff are giving water issues their top priority and utmost efforts.
    But the Observer has chosen to focus not on progress but on maligning the county for not inviting a reporter to a task force meeting of staff members. It is both legal and the customary practice of local governments in North Carolina to exclude the media from internal staff meetings. The newspaper even goes so far as to suggest that there should have been a reporter present at my recent meeting with the public health director about communication between the health department and state agencies, even though I had released to a reporter prior to this meeting both my memorandum to the public health director on this topic and the public health director’s response.
    {mosimage}The challenge of providing clean water will take time and money — and citizen support — as every commissioner has publicly recognized. It will be an expensive challenge, one that voters must support in a future bond vote in order to pay for clean water. We all remember that voters rejected a water and sewer bond referendum in 1994. The Observer has recently reported that there are still homeowners in Cumberland County who do not want to pay for having clean water piped into their neighborhoods.
    The county’s staff is wrestling with ways to address this priority for the county’s citizens. Private meetings are not necessarily “secret” meetings, and works in progress are not necessarily “bungled efforts.” Our progress will not be accelerated by mean-spirited criticism from our local newspaper. The first, necessary steps toward solutions are well underway.

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