NEW CUMBERLAND - An agreement between the Grant and Tomlinson public service districts to share employees and equipment is one step closer to becoming reality, despite the objections of a board member.
On Thursday, Hancock County commissioners approved the Operation and Maintenance Agreement between the two rural water districts and agreed to pay up to $70,000 a year for two full-time staff members. The county's financial commitment is for two years, giving time for the increased wages to be assumed into the districts' rate schedules.
The agreement now goes to the West Virginia Public Service Commission for final approval, something that probably will take four or five months, officials say.
"I believe the direction the (PSD) boards are taking will definitely provide better service, and that's definitely our goal," Commissioner Jeff Davis said.
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.
"We are just sharing employees and sharing equipment," Stevens said. "It's kind of like sharing tools with your neighbor."
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.
"It's come to the point where you really can't have three board members operate the system," Stevens told commissioners on Thursday.
"Both our systems were built in the '60s. The older they get, the more repairs they need," Stevens said in an interview. "Sharing employees gives us a full team to repair mainline leaks. If we work together, we're helping each other, which helps our customers."
Currently, each district has a full-time, licensed water operator, plus part-time help, Stevens said. Assuming supervisory duties for both districts' employees will be Stevens, as general manager, and Jack McIntosh, as manager of distribution and maintenance.
McIntosh, of Chester, most recently worked as a circuit rider for the West Virginia Rural Water Association. He will answer to Stevens, who will be responsible for the finances and general operations of each district, according to the agreement.
"Sharing management and sharing employees is a smart way to go," Stevens said. "Times have changed."
But Grant PSD board member Ed Huff, the lone dissenter in the boards' 5-1 vote to approve the agreement, is not so sure.
Huff attended Thursday's commissioners' meeting to register his "strong opposition" to the agreement - an opposition that he said is shared by others.
Huff said he believes the county's $70,000 can be better spent and that the agreement will end up hurting Grant PSD, which he characterized as the stronger of the two districts.
"We have two full-time employees - we just hired another one - to read our meters and do our work. They want to pull our men off our department and put them out working for Tomlinson - and we pay for them," he said.
Huff also objects to McIntosh's hiring and to Stevens assuming general manager duties for both districts.
"We don't need them. What we need is someone in the field to help our two men," Huff told commissioners.
Huff believes the agreement will divert resources and manpower away from Grant PSD, resulting in poorer service. But Stevens said the staff- and equipment-sharing allowed by the agreement will actually improve service.
Both Huff and Stevens said a rate hike will be necessary to support the agreement, but Stevens said there also will be a cost savings.
"That (rate) cost will not be that full amount (of $70,000) because we'll save money, as well," Stevens said, noting that the sharing regimen "will bring down the cost of labor."
According to the agreement, "all materials, supplies and equipment can be shared between the two districts when needed. The cost of repairing equipment used by both districts will be shared equally by both districts. Any large-ticket items that would be shared by both districts will have the purchase cost shared equally."
Huff also said the Grant PSD board did not have enough time to review the agreement. "We knew nothing about it," he said.
Grant board member Charles Pugh told commissioners on Thursday that the agreement, while not perfect, will bring relief to the overworked staff. "We need more help," he said.
Huff said he has filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission and that a lawsuit is in the offing.